Monday, 31 January 2011

Sands End 'Walkabout' with Council Leader - 31 January 2011

This week, members of the Action Group met with councillors and officers to visit some of the alternative sites proposed by the Council for services currently operating from Sands End Centre.  

The tour started at the Playhouse in Pineapple Park which is to be the site for the new "spoke" of Children's Services in Sands End.  The future of Sure Start is currently under consultation but it is apparent that, with a massively reduced budget to provide local services to families, it will not be possible to provide the same level of care within the ward.  The provision of many of the children's and family support services from a "hub" (not yet built) at least half an hour walk away in Fulham Court, serving a much wider area, and with funds no longer ring fenced; families and young children from Sands End will be adversely affected. The Council argues that vulnerable families will be targeted and visited by 'locality teams' in their own homes but this is thought inappropriate as, it is believed, many people depend on Sands End Centre as place of refuge and comfort, sometimes escaping scenes of domestic violence or unable to cope with their home circumstances, needing counselling or urgent help with childcare, by staff they have grown to trust, at a place they know.  The Playhouse is a small purpose built play group building, ideal for its current occupants.  Its size, layout and location, away from other services, renders it unsuitable as a substitute children's centre.  Families will no longer be able to access services under-one-roof as they do now and where they currently benefit from library, sports, adult education and creche facilities where many of the children's and parent activities take place. 

Moving onto Sands End Centre, the tour passed by Langford Primary School.  The Headmistress is a strong supporter of the campaign to save the Community Centre and Library, knowing that alternative locations suggested by the Council, too far and across a busy main road, will mean that children will be starved of local facilities they currently depend on to do their homework, play, reading and learning out of school hours.  Across the other side of the road we passed by Elizabeth Barnes Court - an assisted living home for the elderly. Residents from there will miss their daily walks to Sands End Centre where they enjoy dropping in to see neighbours for a chat or to borrow books, keeping in touch with community life, rather than staying at home alone.  Walking along Furness Road we pointed out the mixture of housing, ranging from swanky flats for young professionals, to modest council and housing association flats for those in less fortunate circumstances and on low incomes.  People here in this area live in harmony, knowing that with Sands End Centre in the heart of the community, all walks of life are catered for.

Within the Centre we looked particularly at the huge Pottery which is of an exceptional standard.  It simply isn't possible to rehouse this without compromise, as has been verified by teachers and students alike.  We passed the jewellery and stained glass studio, the two fitness studios and the gym and library.  We talked about the advantages of a friendly local pay-as-you-go gym and the potential for more studio classes to be run.  The privately run Tai Chi class has a strong following and a beginners class may soon start.  The Fencing is at full capacity and a class for teenagers is much in demand.  A new kickboxing class for kids is due to begin and so too is a new course of Pilates.  It was stated that there was huge demand for an internet cafe at the Centre and there were perfectly adequate facilities for one to be easily established at low cost.  Moving out of the Centre we witnessed the Amici Dance Group and the disabled arriving for their long established weekly class - parents of one disabled boy wrote recently to express their sadness and dismay at the Centre's closure.

On the walk from the Centre to Hurlingham & Chelsea School we pointed out more social housing scattered along streets of mostly privately owned homes and the nearby Pearscroft Council Estate whose occupants rely on low cost local facilities at Sands End Centre.  Across the busy Wandsworth Bridge Road we entered the side streets of a much more affluent area and eventually we arrived at the secondary school.  We were shown the proposed location at the front of the school planned for development to provide a local library and, in the car park, the possible location for the Pottery.  These would be expensive new builds, paid for with Section 106 money, the Council claiming that many schools were becoming successful community hubs with shared school and community facilities.  We commented that this was the wrong side of the Wandsworth Bridge Road for such a hub and would leave those with the greater need with no facilities close by.  We thought the better solution would be to spend Section 106 money to develop Sands End Centre, already built.

We parted knowing also that Energie Fitness in the privately owned Piper Building, at the opposite end of Peterborough Road, would be the new destination for gym users.  Although there was a no-contract arrangement, there was little prospect for Lifestyle Card holders or continued cheap pay-as-you go rates.  It was also pointed out that Energie Fitness was the third company to try its luck in the Piper Building and there was no guarantee that the next company to take over gym would continue with the same terms and conditions.

The Council said the Wharf Rooms, near to Imperial Road roundabout, could be a possible alternative site - we visited this on another occasion and found it to have no natural light, built more as a conference room and isolated from other community activity.  The location on a particularly busy road and with no parking would make the location unsuitable for elderly, infirm or the very young.

The Action Group was dissatisfied that the needs of Sands End residents could be met by dispersing facilities across the ward.  The loss of the Centre would mean the end of a friendly neighbourhood resource that has a long tradition of looking after the needs of the community and ensuring social cohesion.  We have no doubt that the alternatives the Council were offering would cause damage to community life and was not the right solution, nor did it make financial long-term sense.  Instead it was felt that the Council should delay making a decision to sell the Centre and look instead at the most sensible option which would be to keep the building and work with the community to find ways to make it financially viable.  There was also the possibility of finding a compromise solution if a property developer would offer to buy the building leaving the ground floor for community use.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Meeting With The Leader Of The Council

Report on last week's meeting between the Council and the Action Group.  In attendance were 9 out of 10 members of the Action Group plus:

Cllr Stephen Greenhalgh (Leader Of The Council)
Cllr Greg Smith (Cabinet Member for Residents' Services)
Mr Andrew Christie (Director Of Children's Services)
Ms Gill Sewell (Assistant Director: Children, Youth and Communities)


Last Thursday 13 January 2011, nine members of the Save Sands End Community Centre Action Group met with the Leader of the Council. 

The catalyst for this meeting, as we understood it, had been a document we presented to the Council some two weeks previously.  This document - an income projection - shows clearly that, with a small amount of effort, the Community Centre could be run much more efficiently and could be making much more money than it does at present.  Although the Action Group cannot demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that the Centre could break even, nevertheless our projection clearly demonstrates that huge savings to the taxpayer could be achieved.

But the Council didn't want to talk about that.

We were disappointed not to have had the opportunity to discuss our ideas for retaining the Centre for the community; ideas which would have embraced the Big Society ideal.  All that was cast aside. Instead we listened once again to the Council's justification for selling off buildings to pay off debt in order to "protect front line services". The report by Council Officers, which will be published on 28 January, will endorse the plan to close the Centre and on 7 February the Council Cabinet is likely to agree to put it up for sale.

Although the Council vows not to close the Centre until services are reprovided within the ward, the plan is to move what is left locally of Sure Start (after the major restructuring of children's and family support services) into the Playhouse, which will displace the current Playhouse occupants; and we expect a token library service will be provided in a school and to be run by volunteers. No premises for an affordable pay-as-you-go gym, sports hall and studios has yet been secured. Other support services and facilities will be separated, dispersed or compromised, including the unique university-standard Pottery, which they suggest could be accommodated at Hurlingham and Chelsea School (this would only be possible at enormous cost).

The Council puts no value on the argument for the interlinking of services under one roof. Nor does it have have any regard for the use of the Centre to provide wide ranging activities and support, open to all walks of life, which brings the local community together and encourages social integration and cohesion. Moreover the Council has no regard for the 7000 signature petition, the hundreds of people who turned out to protest, the dozens of objections on both their buildings and library consultations, nor the many letters of complaint they received objecting to the closure, not only from ordinary residents but also from many highly-qualified professionals.

The view of the Action Group is that a decision to close the Centre is both undemocratic and unsound, bearing in mind that the cost of setting up services elsewhere is unknown. We do not believe it makes financial sense to relocate facilities, especially to premises where expensive building modifications will have to take place in order to accommodate them. The Council has not conducted a feasibility study to assess whether the Centre could be saved if run efficiently by them; nor has it allowed us time to fully explore other possibilities for retaining the Centre for the community, which could include private investment. Instead, the Council is rushing headlong with its plan to sell, without properly considering all options, determined to get the £2m capital sum to reduce the Council's debt.

The result will be that Sands End will lose its Centre, right in the heart of the community, ideally located for all. An opportunity will be missed to build up the Centre to make it a flagship model for the Big Society. The result is that a place of learning,  support and care for the community will be gone forever.  The building's potential will only be realised by the property developers for exclusive luxury living accommodation.

The Action Group will continue with the campaign. We have let the Council know that our fight to keep the Centre is based upon the work the Action Group has done to find ways of improving its effectiveness, marketing and use by residents. We will emphasise that we would welcome the challenge of working with the Council on future plans for the Centre, if they would only be willing to consider alternatives to the Easy Option: selling the entire Centre for redevelopment.

Our next meeting with the Council is on 31 January, when the Leader of the Council has agreed to go with us to visit the proposed sites for relocation.
The Tour will begin at 5.00 pm, starting from Sands End Centre.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Council Appoints BNP Paribas

Despite the assurance by the Leader of the Council that no decision has yet been made on whether or not to dispose of Sands End Centre, everything we read leads us to believe that they want to sell up.  

Yesterday's Property Week (page 11 - see link below) reports that the Council have appointed BNP Paribas Real Estate Agents to assess other uses for Sands End Community Centre, presumably for marketing purposes.  The Council have gone ahead and found a school on the edge of the Ward willing to house a token local library facility which will be staffed by volunteers; and they are busy making plans to disperse children's services across 3 London boroughs.  It is true that by abandoning the Centre they may make savings on staff wages and building maintenance costs and these are significant: but the cost to the tax payer when staff join the dole queues and the vulnerable in our community end up in doctors' surgeries is also significant.  Sands End Library and all Community Centre services are linked together and hundreds have come out in protest several times to demonstrate against the Council's proposals to separate them and close the Centre down: this decision would be unpopular to say the least.  It is acknowledged by all that the Centre is poorly run but it has great potential as a community facility. 

BNP Paribas may put a price on it and market it however they like but, according to several property developers we have consulted, the building is a nightmare for development and is likely to be mothballed and could lay vacant, festering for years.  Instead of getting ready for sale and paying for yet more consultations and using all their energy in trying to justify the closure of our buildings, the Council should change tack and concentrate efforts on working together with the local community to find ways collectively to keep the Centre and build it up for the people of Sands End.  It isn't an easy task and neither is it the easy option.  An entrepreneurial spirit is needed as well as hard work and business brains.  We believe together we could have what it takes to save Sands End Centre - it's the effort and the will on the part of the Council which is missing.

Property Week (see page 11)