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.

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