More than 2,000 people have backed a campaign to ‘save’ Cardiff Bay’s Norwegian Church from being taken over by a private business.
The 19th Century church – described as a “beacon of Cardiff’s maritime heritage” – could be transferred to a commercial tenant as the council needs to cut costs.
But the Welsh Norwegian Society has launched a petition calling on Cardiff council to keep the church – which is now used as a cafe and arts centre – in public ownership.
The society claimed Cardiff council has “mismanaged” the church and that it wants to explore ways it can take the venue over.Cardiff council said it is not selling the church and played down suggestions it could be handed over to a fast food chain.
Tyra Oseng-Rees, chairwoman of the Welsh Norwegian Society, said: “The Norwegian seamen’s church in Swansea is now a children’s nursery.
There is no public benefit in that historic building and a similar thing happening to the Norwegian Church in Cardiff would be a significant historic and cultural loss to the city.
“Welsh Norwegian Society want to contribute to the future success of the Norwegian Church as a heritage attraction and arts centre. We would like theopportunity to explore a community asset transfer with Cardiff council, but the most important thing for now is that the council drop their inappropriate plan to seek a commercial tenant.”
Cardiff council said the church now needs significant investment to realise its “undoubted commercial potential”.
But it said it needs private sector help as it faces a £25million budget gap in the coming year.
The trust said significant donations and grants have been given from Norway and Wales to refurbish the church and it would be “morally wrong” for Cardiff council to convert it into a private commercial venture.
The church is owned by the Norwegian Church Preservation Trust, of which Cardiff council is the only trustee.
The charity’s annual accounts have been filed late for the past three years running with 2016’s accounts being submitted more than 14 months late.
Concerns about the way the charity was being run were also expressed by the council’s internal auditors in the latest accounts in 2018.
They said formal trustee meetings have not been held by the charity for at least a year and there was no updated inventory of the trust’s assets.
The Welsh Norwegian Society said it has complained to the Charity Commission about the way the trust is being run.
Ms Oseng-Rees said there is a “poor state of governance” of theNorwegian Church Preservation Trust and said the society questions how the council can make meaningful decisions about the church.
She said: “Our society was given membership of the Norwegian Church Advisory Board as a result of our long-standing relationship with the building.
We have offered Cardiff council help to sort out the mismanagement of the charity, but they have ignored our calls for the advisory board to meet.
“We understand the financial pressures the council are under, and are aware of their policy to find commercial solutions for other heritage buildings such as the New Theatre, but the Norwegian Church is not a part of the council’s property portfolio.
“It appears Welsh Norwegian Society and the people of Cardiff need to remind the council that this iconic building belongs to the Norwegian Church Preservation Trust for the benefit of the Cardiff community and not a sole private commercial tenant. It is vital that the charity status of the Norwegian Church is properly understood.”
Founded in 1868, the Lutheran church was a place of worship for Scandinavian sailors arriving in Cardiff Bay for more than a century.
It was also the church where the Roald Dahl was christened. The author was instrumental in saving the church from ruin in the 1980s as the first president of the Norwegian Church Preservation Trust.
Cardiff council has pledged to preserve the church’s iconic status in Cardiff Bay.
A Cardiff council spokesman said: “The council is not selling the Norwegian Church. What we are doing is looking to secure an operator to run the building on a lease basis so that the building can maximise its commercial potential, we can secure investment, whilst ensuring that the building remains in public ownership.
“The Norwegian Church is an iconic building on Cardiff Bay’s waterfront. As the sole trustee, the Council will ensure that any future plans will preserve the integrity of the church, ensuring the building retains its iconic status in the Bay.”
The council has had budget cuts of £218million over the past 10 years – and says local authorities across the UK are struggling to make ends meet.
The spokesman said: “Balancing the books while maintaining the services our residents want is getting harder each year. This means it becomes more difficult each year to justify ongoing financial subsidies when front-line services are being placed at risk.
“With that in mind the council needs to find a way which protects the Norwegian Church for the future while realising its undoubted commercial potential. The Norwegian Church is in need of significant investment and the council will have to look at new partnership arrangements if that is to happen.
“No decision has yet been taken on the proposed future use of the building and further information will be released when it is available. There has been some misreporting in the media on this so we do want to be clear that there are no plans to hand the building over to any fast food outlets.”
A spokeswoman for The Charity Commission said: “We recently engaged with the trustees of The Norwegian Church Preservation Trust in Cardiff in relation to concerns about their decision-making and whether they were managing conflicts of interest appropriately.”
Matt Discombe covers Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan as part of the BBC's Local Democracy Reporter project, which is aimed at enhancing reporting from local authorities across the UK.