Big Society II: Conservative Council fails to get the plot

For some months now I have been involved in a community group that is one of the best advertisements for the ‘little platoons’ of Burke to which David Cameron referred in his campaigning speeches about the Big Society.  The tragedy for us – many of whom are Conservatives (although we are a group comprised of all affiliations) – is that we have been set up to fight against the plans of the Conservative executive of Hammersmith and Fulham London Borough Council.

Opposite my house lies a community centre that houses an extraordinary range of services and facilities for the local community of Sands End, the south east corner of Fulham.  To most residents, quite apart from casual passers-by, it is the home of a library and sports centre.  That is how I came to know of it as it houses my gym.  Walk in further, as I did recently for a fascinating tour, there are 140 yards of classrooms, a dance studio, a jewellery and stained glass studio, a pottery of university size and standards, an extremely well kitted out Sure Start centre, a creche, computer rooms and office space.

The Council are ‘consulting’ local residents on the possibility of closing the Centre and dispersing its facilities.  In reality, the Consultation paper is a sham: it fails even to consider the option of keeping the Centre, let alone options for alternative management and community involvement.  They claim, accurately, that the building is under-utilised.  Inevitably, it is expensive to run, although much of the public sector finance for it comes from outside the Council from Sure Start.  Yet, in considering why that might be, the Council have failed to look to the main villain of the piece – themselves.  The building has a part-time manager who, in the time he has been in post, has failed to market the building in any way, quite apart from failing to develop a strategic plan for it.  In five years, after a refit costing £1.5 million, the Centre has had almost no marketing: certainly, my colleagues who have lived in the area for longer than me remember nothing.  So it is hardly surprising that the buidling is ‘under-utilised’ – how is a Centre including as many different facilities as this one going to be used where nobody in the locality knows that it is there?

Moreover, there has been absolutely no attempt to engage local business and the charitable sector.  Just a little imagination tells you a number of possible routes to funding and higher use: sponsorship, livery companies (particularly important in view of the craft studios), the greater involvement of local schools and charitable involvement.  Of course, none of these sources of greater use and money would be easy to achieve.  They require effort and, most importantly of all, strategic thinking. Exactly what has been lacking in this as in so many other parts of the public sector.

What is so sad is that our Centre offers the Council the opportunity to create a beacon for the sort of communitarian conservatism that their leaders profess so loudly and so clearly.  Our group itself has demonstrated how the local community can think imaginatively about the management of its resources.  Communities do that because they are close to these resources, they use them, they see the faults and advantages in their management and, most importantly of all, they are committed to them.  We only wish that the energy and commitment to the Centre the community has itself demonstrated could be welcomed and channelled by the Council.

In the local paper itself Eric Pickles MP wrote just last month to say that local government should look not to the ‘easy’ targets of front-line services but to the gigantic, wasteful bureaucracies at their core.  Perhaps, though, this is the core of the problem.  Just last week the Chief Executive of the Local Government Association appeared on Newsnight to defend not merely his salary (over twice that of the Prime Minister) but of the huge salaries of local government executives throughout the land.  This isn’t all.  The reports, enforcement officers, meetings and other job creation schemes in the local government civil service are ripe for cutting.  Yet it is a centre that has served its community for over thirty years that gets the axe.  Turkeys, of course, never did vote for Christmas.

NB – read more about the fight to save the community centre , including our response to the consultation paper, on our group’s blog.