Before the Garden Festival of Wales
The site on where the Garden Festival (now Festival Park) was situated, used to be home to the old Steel and Iron works which used to run here in Ebbw Vale. Following the closure and demolition of Ebbw Vale steelworks in the 1970s, thought was given to the role that its derelict and industrially polluted site would serve in the future. The site was replaced with slag heaps made from molten slag from the remaining part of the Ebbw Vale Steelworks which eventually closed in 2001.
In the 1970s when the country was under the Conservative Government, it was realised that there were major problems in the country with cities becoming run down and riots occurring. Michael Hesseltine, who noticed these problems aimed to solve it, and therefore sent a team out to Germany, who are well known for their festivals, to discover how they have recovered after the second world war.
The team of leading financial people returned from Germany with an idea of three national Garden Festivals: Liverpool, Stoke-On-Trent and Glasglow. At this time, it was noticed by Brian Scully, the most senior member of council in Wales, that Wales was being singled out by not being rewarded with a Garden Festival. It was decided by the leader of the Welsh Local Council Association and the Leader of Blaenau Gwent (both Brian Scully) that between himself and the two massive power structures that he would fight for Wales to have a Garden Festival. The country with so many closure of colleries and steelworks and with high unemployment was the country that deserved to host at least one Garden Festival.
Using his politican strength, Brian Scully politically embarassed the Secretary of State: Lord Crickhowell (Nicholas Edwards), and challenged his stewardship. This lasted for two years before the perminant secretary announced a fourth and fifth Garden Festival - Gateshead and Wales (which was yet to be decided). The criteria for a Garden Festival was 200-300 acres of land which is now a brownfield site. Ebbw Vale had one of those to offer.
With a Garden Festival being planned for Wales, all 23 local authorities were sent a letter inviting them to bid and produce a £10 million business plan for the site. They had only six months to do so. At this time, Brian Scully was now Mayor of Blaenau Gwent and therefore pushed forward with his own county trying to claim the Garden Festival. To assist him with this, a commitee was created of cross-parties. It was decided that although Blaenau Gwent was under Labour control, all parties should be included for this to be successful. Philip Weekes was declared the chair man while Brian Blake, the managing director for Welsh Brewers, was made marketing manager.
This plan worked and made Blaenau Gwent part of the short-list consisting of 19 local authorities. At this time, Brian Scully was no longer mayor. In the 1980s, Blaenau Gwent made it to the short list again consisting of only 6 local authorities. It was decided that the only way to win this was to involve the community and show that the people of Ebbw Vale (as this was the only place in Blaenau Gwent that met the criteria) actually wanted the Garden Festival. People from various organisations were invited to join in meetings and the plans were shared with them. This included leaders of local clubs (such as football) from Abertillery, Blaina, Brynmawr, Ebbw Vale and the other surrounding areas.
At this point, Blaenau Gwent had to prove it could hangle a £60 - £80 million investment in the area. As the bidders become smaller, Cardiff withdrew announcing plans of the bay area. Until this point, no councillors believed that Blaenau Gwent could actually win, but now it was in the last 6 of possible winners, everyone started to belive. The local organisations and clubs wrote letters to the organisers of the Garden Festivals and told them how much they wanted this attraction in the area. All the local newspapers supported Ebbw Vale in this bid including the Gwent Gazette; except the Western Mail who supported the biggest competitor - Swansea.
Now the county had made it this far, words were starting to lose meaning as no one could visualise this. Philip Weekes and Brian Blake found a company in Bristol (Watershed Television Ltd.) who would make them a video tape of the plan, costing £22,000, and show the people what was possible. When it came to final moments and the inspectors came to study and evaluate the area from the top of the Domen (Yr Domen Fawr mountain). At this point, it was almost clear Ebbw Vale was winning by the words that were said. Lord Crickhowell sat on top of the Domen and said that this was a "beautiful landscape". The challenge was, at this height and with our weather, was it possible to grow flowers? Due to this, Lord Crickhowell's wive demaded to see a local allotment (located at the foot of the Domen near High Street in Briery Hill). She was very impressed to see that it was possible.
Brian Blake, who was friendly with the local newspapers had a chat to the editors of the Western Mail, who then later flipped their entire story and supported Ebbw Vale over Swansea.
On November 19th 1986, it was announced that Ebbw Vale had in fact won the bid for the last British Garden Festival, which would be called the Garden Festival of Wales. In 1987, work began to sort out the slag heaps generated by the old Ebbw Vale steelworks. With a budget of £8 million for the land, big plans were made like a chair lift and a castle. Unfortunately, this budget was stretched to £18 million which meant only a smaller castle and a land-train instead of the chair lift.
And there you have it! The story (thanks to Cllr Brian Scully) of how Ebbw Vale had won the bid, is a long but interesting story which not many know. And it is believed that this web site, is the first and only written version of this story.
The letter declaring Ebbw Vale the winner is on display in the Civic Centre in Ebbw Vale.