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.

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