Wesley Halls in Downham – faced with redevelopment
Lewisham council’s “Safer Strong Communities Select Committee” has announced cost-cutting plans to “rationalise” Lewisham borough’s community centres. Many of Lewisham’s community centres are being closed. The list includes The Saville Centre, office base of the Lewisham Pensioners Forum, The Brandram Road Centre, the Woodpecker community centre, the Ewart Road Housing Coop, the two Venner Road Hall Community Association buildings and Scotney Hall, home to the REM Educational Centre. On top of this the Barnes Wallis Community Centre, the Evelyn Community Centre, the Honor Oak Community centre, and Wesley Halls, home of the Downham Community Association are being redeveloped as smaller centres to make space for housing, and there are suggestions that the Goldsmiths Community Centre and 2000 Community Action Centre will be redeveloped in the near future. Two centres – The Champion Hall community Centre, and Clare hall are being removed from the community premises list and marketed as nurseries. The Moonshot, and The Ringway are facing cuts and higher charges, resepectively. The Irish Centre (funded by the Irish Government), will remain, but will be forced to take the spill over resulting from other centres’ closures, as will The Naborhood Centre, while the Sedgehill Community Centre will be forced to accommodate school facilities following the acadamisation of Sedgehill School. Of the twenty-four premises in council ownership, only the Ackroyd Centre in Crofton Park, whose chair is Councillor Pauline Morrison, will remain unscathed.
The suitability of the centres
The decision of which centres to close seems to have nothing to do with their suitability as centres, the quality of the work performed by the groups that use them, or their cost. As Tamsin Bacchus, part-time Admin Officer at the Lewisham Pensioners’ Forum points out, “one department of the Council has actually registered our building as “a community asset” under the terms of the Localism Act, while, with sad irony, another is proposing that it should be closed.” Many of the threatened centres are earmarked for new council housing because following pressure on the Mayor from People Before Profit he announced just before the last council elections that 500 new council homes would be built. Because the Council failed to ensure that the new developments in Lewisham, Catford, Bell Green and Deptford included 50% affordable rented housing (as laid down in the council’s policy) there is now no chance of these 500 homes being built as the council has given away or sold a lot of the land it could have used. That’s why they want us to suffer twice – firstly by taking away our community centres and secondly by further overcrowding our densely populated areas like Honor Oak Estate, Wild Goose Drive and others.
The cost of the centres
Given that the council is trying to find £45 million in cuts, the closure of the centres could be perceived as a necessary cost cutting exercise. However, the costs of community centres are not high. The Venner Road Hall Community Association, which manages sites in Venner road and Silverdale, is a typical example. It provides a very popular childcare service for the Sydenham area. It also hosts groups that support the Turkish and Asian community, and classes in drumming and Spanish. Tony Mensah, chair of the organisation says “We get no money from the council, and when we heard the proposal to close the centre, we asked them if it was possible to come to an arrangement with them where we pay rent to keep the centre going. They have ignored our offers. We have spoken to Liz Dart, Head of Culture and Community Development at Lewisham council, who told us a month ago that someone would come out to look at the centre, but noone has come.”
The vast majority of the community groups currently running on Lewisham council owned premises will be crammed into volunteer-run “Hubs”, such as the Leemore Centre in Lewisham Central, which will not only make life difficult for them, but decrease the spread of community organisations in the borough. One instance of this is that the Sydenham and Catford Citizen’s Advice Bureaux will both be moved to the Leemore, halving the number of Citizen’s Advice Bureaux in the borough.
Pensioners learning how to use the interenet at the Saville Centre, which is facing closure under the council plan
The creation of Hubs is also part of the council’s policy to reduce it’s provision of Day Services to the disabled, as outlined in this document, published by the council in February of this year. Community groups will be housed in the same spaces as the soon to be cut back council run services, presumably in the hope that as the need for these services does not diminish, but the provision for them does, the resulting strain will be taken up by volunteers. The Mulberry Centre in Deptford will transfer from being a council run deliverer of day services to one of these volunteer led hubs, with day services included on a smaller scale.
The hubs are understandably not popular with community groups. “Big ‘hubs’ might sound like a good idea”, says Tamsin Bacchus, “but their very nature can subtly exclude those most in need.” It would be “most regrettable”, she adds “to move away from a location such as the Saville, which is visible, easy to access and conveniently close to the hospital for people to drop in on their way to or from appointments.” The visitors to the pensioner’s forum, she says, are “not not generally happy with ‘pinging’ over an e-mail or checking things ‘online’ and the members value the face-to-face opportunities, calling in with their queries, to buy Pensioners Day tickets or to book onto an outing.” She adds that the closure of the Saville would be “even more of a loss to the other vulnerable groups who use it. The disabled access and facilities are excellent, and, with a single room, there is only one activity going on at a time – a key reassurance for the vulnerable.” Tony Mensah says that the Narborhood resource centre in Sydenham, which will be the hub for that area, is “already overcrowded”, and “not ideal for the groups that come to the Venner and Silverdale centres”.
The plan to redevelop centres
Meanwhile, those responsible for centres that are being redeveloped, rather than shut down, have similar criticisms to make of the council’s action. Yvonne Peart, trustee of the Honor Oak Community centre, says “Honor Oak Community centre was opened 1981 to provide community facilities to minimise the disadvantages associated with the Estate’s isolated location, which is still very evident today. Our community centre is very well used and is attended by various groups every day and night of the week. Currently the youth club and community centre have activities running at the same time at their separate venues on the site. The planned redevelopment of the site will mean that many of the activities currently being undertaken will not be able to continue.” “We are sympathetic towards the need for more housing in Lewisham, at the same time, it is almost inconceivable that the council would consider reducing the amount of community space in this very populated area and then increase the population. What is even more astounding is that the council have not consulted the residents on the Honor Oak Estate about their plans to build more housing and reduce their community facilities.”
Honor Oak Community Centre – facing redevelopment
Nearly all centres are affected by the changes
Even those centres which are entitled to remain in the same locations without redevelopment, as they have sole occupancy by a particular group and are therefore not community centres, are facing new challenges. Phillip Poleon of Lewisham Way Youth and Community Centre says “Our centre has been running for 40 years. We used to be funded by Lewisham Council, but for the last 3 years we have funded ourselves, through the organisations that use us. We teach IT, English, maths, art, music, music technology and Pilates to young people, and have trophies on our wall from young people who competed in football and taekwondo, who were taught at the centre. I grew up in this area, and went to youth centres like the Moonshot here, as did many notable people like Ian Wright, and the actor Robbie Gee. I have seen the vital role that youth centres play in encouraging young people to get on with each other and avoid getting involved in postcode gangs and fighting. We are not only a youth group, but also a centre for the whole community and host a variety of community groups for people of all ages, including people with mental health issues. Now the council are forcing a contract on us which holds us responsible for all repairs, and are charging us for the lease. This is costing us £2000 per month. I can’t see how we will be able to continue as a centre with this cost.” Estella Weston, the chair of the centre adds “we will probably have to move out, and then the council will sell the building for a profit, as we are in an area of rapidly increasing property values. It would be a travesty if this happened, as it has served a lot of people in the community. I went here as a young person.”
The consultation process
Her view that the council is trying to cash in on the increasing value of property is echoed by Tony Mensah, who also reinforces the opinion expressed by representatives of many community groups that the council has not listened to them, and the consultation process is a way of hiding decisions that were taken before the process started, “We feel that the consultation process the council set up is just a formality,” he suggests “and that the decision to close the centre is a fait accompli. The council wants to gentrify the borough, and sell the Silverdale site so it can be turned into up-market flats, and the Venner Road site into a commercial nursery. The ordinary citizens that our centre represents are being pushed out. Members of the community we serve vehemently oppose the closures. The council have also given us a very short timescale for leaving. We have had no time to make contingency plans.”