Monwel Signs and Services was a subsidiary of Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council. It is a registered manufacturer and supplier of road-signs to Highways Agency standards and is Sector 9a approved.
It was formed in 1966 as a sheltered employment workshop, with premises in Newport, Pontypool and Tredegar. It was a general contract manufacturer, with each premises concentrated on different product ranges depending on the installed equipment. Following Local Government re organisation in 1995 the three divisions were separated and the sign-making division was passed to the newly created Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council.
Monwel Signs & Services delivers the DWP “Work Choice” supported employment grant funded programme on behalf of Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council. There are 32 contracted places on the “Work Choice” scheme and 7 other members of staff, most of whom have a disability.
However, from 2009, the Monwel Signs & Services, Supported Employment Project was in financial difficulties. This resulted in the Local Authority providing a financial subsidy of approximately £250,000 on an annual basis and the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) providing an annual grant aid funding of £154,000.
Blaenau Gwent CBC took the decision in 2012 that in order to make the business sustainable it needed to become more commercial, without losing its social purpose. They decided to spin-out the business as a social enterprise, and contacted Social Firms Wales and the Wales Co-operative Centre to assist them through this process.
I was commissioned by the BGCBC Chief Regeneration Officer to produce a detailed Business Plan for the business. Our consultant, Alex Bird, worked closely with the Regeneration, Finance, Legal and Personnel Departments, as well as their legal advisers, PricewaterhouseCoopers and business partner Continental Teves, to ensure the Business Plan was realistic and comprehensive. This enabled the workforce, the trades unions and the council to have confidence in the viability of the business going forwards, and the business operated as a stand-alone social enterprise from April 2013.
The governance model chosen on the advice of Social Firms Wales and the Wales Co-operative Centre, was the classic social enterprise/charity model with an external Board of Management. My advice was to form a worker co-operative, but this was not part of my brief, so my advice was not taken. The social enterprise model has the advantage of better access to grant and public support, but lacks the driver of workers owning their own job, which in my view is crucial to survival in difficult conditions.
Two years later, when the going got tough and cash-flow became critical, the external Board decided to close the business, against the wishes of the workforce. The workers expressed the view that they would rather take a pay cut to keep it going, but they were not in charge, so sadly it closed.