Saturday, 19 February 2011

DECISION - Cabinet, 7 February 2011

It was the result we all expected.

On Monday evening, 7 February, representatives of the Community Centre Action Group, along with their many supporters plus hundreds of others, representing various doomed buildings throughout the Borough, gathered to witness the rubber-stamping of a decision made long ago - a decision made long before any so-called consultations - a decision that flies in the face and strikes at the very heart of the Prime Minister's cherished idea of Big Society.

Let's be sure of one thing - these recent consultations have been a sham and did no more than provide a thin veneer of legality over decisions already taken.  

And what of Democracy?

Let's examine the evidence: 75% of respondents to the Sands End Consultation (the Council's own figures) wanted the Centre to remain open.  7,000 people - in a Ward of 9,000 - signed a petition urging the Council to keep the Centre open.  If this was an election, the result would have been a landslide.  Yet, in spite of that, the Council is still going ahead and selling the building.

Let's be perfectly clear: this Council couldn't care less what you think.  Worse still, it cares nothing for the principles of Democracy.

On that Monday evening in the Assembly Hall, which was packed to the rafters, we, alongside our friends from the Irish Centre, Pailingswick House, the Shepherd's Bush Village Hall and others, made impassioned speeches before the Council Cabinet in a last-ditch attempt to make our case.  Cabinet members then went through the shoddy and senseless process of "asking us questions" all to give the impression that they were "listening" or to try to catch us out and to somehow justify themselves.  Yet we knew that the decision had been already taken - so what was the point?  For any of you who may be new to this, this is how it works: before such a meeting, the Cabinet gathers to make the official decision.  Whatever happens in public is purely for show.  Apologies if that came as a shock.  All of you good people who turned up at Town Hall, who waved your banners, who chanted your chants and sang your songs, who spoke passionately, intelligently and movingly to local radio stations, BBC London News, ITV London Tonight and the Newsnight programme: you may just as well have stayed at home.  The decision had been already taken long ago.

A few moments from that night stand out.  Firstly, the fierce Labour opposition.  The Action Group has no political stance (we're more-or-less evenly divided between traditionally Conservative and traditionally Labour voters) but we were struck by their passion and real effort to make the Tory Council engage with us.  Throughout this process they have been staunch in their support; not merely because it is their job to provide an effective opposition, nor because they are always looking to "give the other side a kicking" whenever possible. Much more than that, they have consistently provided us with insights into the process of local government and have supported our efforts to safeguard our communities against the ravages of this administration.  All in all, they have engaged with us to precisely the same extent as the Tory Councillors have not.

Secondly, Councillor Greenhalgh reiterated that the building would not close until all services currently run from the Centre had been reprovided elsewhere within the Ward.  Now, not even two weeks on, the "decanting" (their word) of Sands End Centre services has begun.  The first of the services will be closed at the end of April - the gym.  No more affordable rates for Sands End Centre members - just the suggestion to grab what you can at a here-today-gone-tomorrow private gym the other side of Sands End.  Never mind the pensioners, the vulnerable, the disabled and poor or the kids and young parents.  They are not provided for - they can look after themselves.  "Putting Residents First"?  You decide.

Thirdly, mention must be made of Councillor Greg Smith's contribution to Monday night's debate.  The Action Group has come up with two potential buyers for the site, should the Centre be forced to close.  One developer has already offered the Council's valuation price - the Council's own figure of £2 million - and both have offered to work with the community in order to run it on a private-public basis, whereby some of the building would be turned into residential accommodation, whilst retaining the ground floor for community use.  On hearing this, Cllr Smith quipped, "Well, if two people have already come forward, then the building must be worth more - so I suggest we raise the asking price".  He could be right - that the building may be worth more - but he's also, once again, entirely missing the point.  Here was a chance for Mr Smith to say, for the very first time in this process, "Hang on, that's a great idea.  Let's get together and see if we can make this work".  But, as on so many previous occasions, Mr Smith just failed to "get it".

That moment alone tells you everything you need to know and should alert us all as to the true nature of what we are dealing with.  This is not a Council which believes in community.  It is not a Council which believes in working with people.  This Council is not "putting residents first" - what it is putting first is its own politically motivated agenda.  If they were really interested in putting us first then surely this compromise solution of a private, local investor, prepared to work alongside the community, should at the very least have been properly considered by the Council and the decision delayed.  But no; like our business plans and so many other good suggestions, it was merely cast aside.

Until the last light goes out, the fight goes on.  The Action Group has not given up and will not stand aside.  Unlike the Council, we have never taken "the easy option".  We will continue the dialogue; to look for compromises and we will try to work with the Council, whatever their attitude to us may be.  Unlike them, our resolve is to seek a solution that is fair and that suits us all in order to save something of value from this process.

The lights are still on at the Sands End Community Centre. 

You can read the Action Group speech here (item 4 on the page)
Fulham Chronicle article
Evening Standard article