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.

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9 Comments

  1. Jon Rollason said,

    24 November, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    I sympathise, and applaud your efforts here.

    However, one can see the Council’s dilemma. People weren’t using the centre, so they decided to close it. At that point there was a sudden upsurge of interest in the centre among local barristers, many of whom had been unaware previously that the centre contained an under-used ceramics farm. Local barristers now demand that as well as staying open, it must be marketed until it achieves the sort of utilisation that would justify it staying open. And they probably don’t guarantee they’ll use it themselves (I’m a huge fan of local libraries myself, but I actually get my books from Amazon, of course). And they’re bound to wonder whether, if they guarantee its funding, anyone will be using it in 6 months time. But it is suddenly a sacred cow of local government spending, and it’s going to cost even more – the manager will need to be full-time, he may need a marketing assistant, at the very least there will be a cost in leaflets, liaison with schools and charities etc.

    Unless, and perhaps this really is the test of whether Cameron has anything going on here, local barristers do really step up and decide that they’re going to help out doing this sort of thing for free. Maybe they will. Maybe you’ve got time, maybe you’d actively like to do it, maybe it’d be life-enriching. Maybe you want to be responsible to your “community'” for ensuring that it doesn’t still face the axe in a year’s time. But it’s quite a big ask isn’t it?

    I raise this because you’re on a hiding to nothing demanding that “bureaucracy” takes the cuts rather than any particular sacred pet project. Even if it could be done, capped council tax, declining grants etc will, surely, come up against the demand of absolutely everyone that their favoured service remain untouched. Something ultimately gives unless there’s more money (which there isn’t) or you need less money because “the community” spontaneously starts doing things for free that it’s needed paying for for decades.

    Good luck with it anyhow.

  2. Francis Hoar said,

    24 November, 2010 at 2:27 pm

    The point is that bad management and a failure to market a place leads to a decrease in funds and under-utilisation. I’ve made that point in the post already. And I also made the point that we are actively pursuing the idea of making it a community run centre. In fact, pretty clearly.

    I disagree about bureaucratic savings. The problem isn’t that there aren’t administrative savings to be made but that to do so involves asking difficult questions about the numbers of employees in the Town Halls, their salary levels and their purpose. This is not easy, or popular, work and is most unlikely to be done by councils that are (as almost all are) in the pocket of their executives. Hence my closing line. Much easier to point to a million there and £500,000 there from front line services. Which is exactly what councils are being asked not to do.

    Yes, notwithstanding the above some services will have to go. In this case, however, the council has failed adequately to consult, has relied upon a lack of use for which it is largely responsible, has failed to consider alternative income streams and has ignored the wishes of the local community. Not only that, but you’ll see I pointed out that it expressly refused to consider a community run centre. That is not the way to reduce spending or run a democratic body.

  3. Michael Ranson said,

    25 November, 2010 at 10:34 am

    I think this exposes a great flaw at the heart of the Big Society.

    – You, rightly, want the sort of services provided by this centre.

    – Ideologically, you probably also want low taxes and a low (if not the lowest) level of government involvement in the provision of services.

    – Let’s presume (which is by no means guaranteed) that a building like this can financially ‘wash its face’ without money from the state.

    – The key capital asset needed to provide the services you want – a large chunk of relatively prime London real estate – is owned by the state.

    – How do you get that valuable asset out of state hands and into the Big Society (which means the private sector in one way or another) without depriving the tax payer of the financial windfall that comes from a sale?

    – Who picks the best Big Society vehicle to provide the new services? An election? If so, it begins to smack a bit of local government all over again. No election? Looks like Big Government dictating to people.

    – Once it is in the hands of the Big Society, who ensures that the services you want continue to be provided? What level of accountability do you expect the Big Society to have? If your hopes on pinned on the invisible hand of the market, do you really think there will be a thriving competitive market for cheap weights rooms and kilns in South West London?

    The constant references by Tories to the ‘charitable’ sector being the white knight here amaze me. So far as I can see charities tend to fall into two camps – the mega charity corporation (The Wellcome Trust or Cancer Research, for example) and the well-meaning but organisational hopeless local charity which lives hand to mouth on coffee morning proceeds – neither of which, I’m sure you will agree, is ideally suited to provide the sort of services you want.

    The Big Society idea is muddled. Anybody who doubts that need look no further than provision of pottery and cheap gym services to the residents of Hammersmith & Fulham.

  4. Michael Ranson said,

    25 November, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    I cannot help but draw attention to this excellent section from the campaign blog which I reckon shows, in essence, the philosophical distinction between Labour and the Conservatives.

    Is it a step too far to think that the mentality of the Labour movement, grounded as it is in local parties and local concerns, will better protect people concerned about local issues than a Tory party which grew up in Westminster and sees itself as a party of national government?

    “The Labour members, to their enormous credit, spoke passionately, intelligently and warmly about the value of the Centre to the community; about the importance of the Library and the many, many smaller yet vital services and amenities which the Centre offers – the Sure Start complex, the Family Assist programme, the Crèche, Adult Education and so on.

    By complete contrast, the Conservative councillors remained silent. No Conservative councillor rose to speak. Not one Conservative councillor could be bothered to get to their feet and say a few words to any of the 7,000 residents who had signed that Petition. Perhaps they failed to grasp the importance of the situation.”

    • francishoar said,

      26 November, 2010 at 12:33 am

      What a pleasure – replying to my two regular contributors and trying not to wish that I had more Tory readers. Oh well.

      Anyway, Mike:

      “- You, rightly, want the sort of services provided by this centre.”

      Yes.

      “- Ideologically, you probably also want low taxes and a low (if not the lowest) level of government involvement in the provision of services.”

      I certainly believe government doesn’t always run services best. This is actually a case in point. I take it you read the blog and perhaps even our response to the consultation. The principle reason the Council is able to whack the Centre for lack of use is because it has managed it so badly. Perhaps, as we believe, deliberately. Do you think this would have happened if a board of trustees had had day to day management? I don’t. The reason the Council has been able to allow the Centre to run down is because it has failed to allow it to be directly accountable to the community. So…

      “- Let’s presume (which is by no means guaranteed) that a building like this can financially ‘wash its face’ without money from the state.”

      We don’t actually contend this. In fact, approximately half the funding comes from Sure Start – which (whether or not it charges those who can afford its services) would continue. Other funding may come from other public body – especially schools. But, yes, we believe we can obtain funding from charities, livery companies, and businesses – local and otherwise. If you read our response you’ll see that Sainsbury’s is developing an area of land it owns. The local authority has the power, under s 105 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, to require the developer to pay monies to the authority which it may then distribute to local services. Why, then, does it not use this means of ‘charging’ for development to ensure these services are paid for?
      Again, this is bad government

      “- The key capital asset needed to provide the services you want – a large chunk of relatively prime London real estate – is owned by the state.”

      It is owned by the council as a trustee for its residents. What is this fixation you have for the state? Is it good to have common ownership of a building such as this for the benefit of the community? Yes – whether as a charity, a community enterprise or otherwise. But if the local council is running it badly, let’s consider alternative means of running it.

      “- How do you get that valuable asset out of state hands and into the Big Society (which means the private sector in one way or another) without depriving the tax payer of the financial windfall that comes from a sale?”

      Are you serious? If the Centre was taken over by a community enterprise, in the first instance it would still be owned by the Council. In any event, the building would still be run for the benefit of the local residents. To require it to br bought would be utterly perverse – even if the funds weren’t impossible to find (which they might be) you would be requiring a capital sum from residents (or others) to pay for the continuation of facilities kept up for their benefit. Utter madness.

      “- Who picks the best Big Society vehicle to provide the new services? An election? If so, it begins to smack a bit of local government all over again. No election? Looks like Big Government dictating to people.”

      If the local Council runs this Centre badly, then we certainly do need different means of running it. So get in trustees – no different to a governing body of a school, in fact. That is hardly a radical idea as all schools have them. Who appoints it? Probably the local authority perhaps with other trustees being appointed by other sponsors. Lets be flexible. But please don’t come back with ‘you don’t trust the local authority to run it but you do trust it to appoint trustees’, because it isn’t a logical point. To appoint trustees would be to recognise that the Centre would be better run closer to the community by a group of people who live in the area; a recognition that the Council aren’t best placed to run it directly.

      “- Once it is in the hands of the Big Society, who ensures that the services you want continue to be provided? What level of accountability do you expect the Big Society to have? If your hopes on pinned on the invisible hand of the market, do you really think there will be a thriving competitive market for cheap weights rooms and kilns in South West London?”

      Accountability comes through the appointees but really through results. As I’ve said, we wouldn’t be reliant on the market due to the continued funding from the Council, Sure Start and other public bodies we wish to maintain. Again, it is about spending more wisely which means ensuring that public support for community resources is matched to a greater extent by other sources of funding as much as possible. That requires good, imaginative management strategies, which the local Council has consistently failed to provide.

      And it really is much more than kilns and a gym – read our response for more details.

      Finally, we are of course grateful for the support we’ve received from councillors of any party and none. However, as I have argued to the Conservatives on the Council too, were they to implement some of the ideas for alternative models of management, marketing and funding they would be demonstrating that the Big Society you love to scorn (really no more than the little platoons of organic conservatism that are a recognition of how communities work best) can really work. And that wouldn’t please the Labour Party one bit.

  5. Michael Ranson said,

    26 November, 2010 at 1:20 pm

    Nice reply Frank. Let me amplify a few points though;

    1) Jon is the trust expert, so I will leave him to pick away at your idea that local government holds things on trust for residents. I am not sure this is a helpful way of viewing the balance of power between elected bodies and the electorate;

    2) the point about capital value of the asset is similar to your Coca Cola blog post. Sometimes selling stuff is the most prudent thing to do (but please don’t take that statement as a general endorsement of a policy of privatisation…). I am not sure who would have the power of sale under your proposed structure.

    3) I think the analogy between school governors and the sort of trustee you suggest might run a centre like this is not a good one. School governors cannot sell or close the school because of the obligations they owe to local and central government. They are, in effect, merely carrying out delegated functions of Big Government. I think you would be unhappy if your trustees were in a similar position.

    4) This sentence “Accountability comes through the appointees but really through results.” sounds a bit like something Cameron would say. Superficially attractive but hollow. What do you mean? If the centre didn’t make money the trustees would be sacked? By whom? At what level of loss? Don’t we come back to the trustees being either unelected and all-powerful or the place-men of the council?

    5) I don’t think S106 agreements (I will forgive your reference to S105 as being a slip of the keyboard) can be used to fund things as peripheral as gyms etc unless the development in question put undue strain on those existing resources. In any event, the resources in question would have to be being used at capacity prior to the development. That doesn’t seem to be happening here.

    My conclusion, as a believer in democracy, is to disagree with the following statement in your reply – “If the local Council runs this Centre badly, then we certainly do need different means of running it. So get in trustees”

    I would say if the current local council runs this centre badly vote in a new set of councillors. That is what democracy means in the era of universal suffrage. The Big Society is inherently undemocratic and I am happy to deride it on party political and philosophical grounds for as long as I have to.

    • francishoar said,

      26 November, 2010 at 2:22 pm

      Mike,

      Just briefly, if it wasn’t clear, I wasn’t suggesting that the Council are trustees in law. Of course they aren’t. What I was suggesting was that local authorities hold centres like this on trust in the commonly accepted sense of the word: that is to say they are entrusted by the community to manage them for the benefit of the residents.

      The Board we would like to set up would not necessarily be a formal trust but more akin to a board of management. Consequently, it would be much more analogous to a board of governors than you suggest – ultimate decisions about sale would not be devolved to it.

      Finally, your point about democratic accountability I fear misses the point I’m making. It isn’t about the control of the council or the ability of the councillors. It is that the centre is poorly managed because the management structure (itself flawed) is accountable only to a council located in the other half of the Borough (Hammersmith). Were the management directly accountable to a board of management taken from users of the community, that would not be the case. (The Board would, of course, be itself accountable to the Council so the ultimate democratic accountability remains. This is no different, on a much smaller scale, to the BBC.)

      This is what the (perhaps poorly named) ‘big society’ IS all about. Bringing about more direct community control that removes layers of bureaucratic inefficiency between poorly performing management and councils. In this case, the democratic accountability from four yearly elections doesn’t help the Centre one bit. What it needs is motivated members of the community who have its interests directly at heart and have the ability to help the management by devising strategy, dealing with funders, marketing, etc – for free. As with mutualisation, it is a means of building community resources that work better for the community they serve.

  6. Michael Ranson said,

    26 November, 2010 at 3:19 pm

    That is perhaps the best explanation of the Big Society I’ve read. Much clearer than the flim flam coming out of Tory HQ and, dare I say it, certain Tory MPs…

    Let’s be specific about your centre. My fear would be that those who volunteer their time to manage the facility may be time-rich but skills-poor. Once installed these volunteers (who I will concede are as likely to be well meaning as they are likely to be self-aggrandising) may be difficult to remove from office.

    Don’t you fear that the Big Society might lead to well-intentioned, local mismanagement, but mismanagement nonetheless?

    • francishoar said,

      26 November, 2010 at 3:58 pm

      Thank you.

      I can’t quite ignore the bit about ‘self-aggrandising’. This is the the ‘busybodies’ line that Labour likes to spout. Presumably it applies to every charitable endeavour there has ever been. Busybodies seem to have done rather a lot of good in the past, wouldn’t you say?

      As for mismanagement, well, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating but we have already eaten the last pudding and it tasted disgusting. No marketing, no strategy, a part time manager who spends most of his time checking his illegally parked car doesn’t have a ticket and a council with no interest in the centre’s success. We couldn’t very well do worse than that.


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