It was with grave concern that I read an email from St Michael's Mount Community Centre en route to Vienna on 30 September calling an urgent meeting to discuss the community centre's future. The managing committee believed NHDC had decided to close the centre. There's not much one can do at the airport while queueing to board a flight, but I managed to get hold of officers who very quickly looked into the issue and were categoric that neither St Michael's nor Walsworth Community Centre were closing. Rather, negotiations with both about new leases subject to NHDC's Community Hall Strategy were ongoing.
The Community Hall Strategy eliminates funding from NHDC tax payers for centres, part of the wider cost cutting measures all local councils are having to make due to reduced funding from central government. Other community centres in North Herts have taken up repairing leases, but there remain three, St Michaels, Walsworth and Coombes Community Centre in Royston, which are still in negotiation with NHDC.
Recent press reports have said that all three community centres face closure. This simply is not the case.
The Overview and Scrutiny Committee, of which I am a member, was presented with a report on the state of negotiations with each of the three centres on 20 September. The report updated on the stage each centre was at in finding a viable solution. But somewhat unhelpfully in each case contained line in the recommendations to Cabinet that if no solution could be found by a set date, one possible option could be closure.
I viewed this as a threat and something which should not be included in the recommendations at all. As a committee, we resolved that the recommendations be amended so that if any report recommended closure of one of the centres, it must first come before our committee for full scrutiny to ensure proper process was followed. Officers at the time stressed that closure was not being considered for any centre. However, we were concerned given the sensitive nature of the issues, and especially as many of the management committees at each centre were unpaid volunteers and trustees, that they be given a fair amount of time to consider the reports and surveys presented to them. We recommended negotiations for St Michael's and Coombes continue until 30 November and Walsworth until 31 January 2017.
Of course it's concerning a solution hasn't been found by now for these centres. But the trouble is an over insistence on 'consistency'. What this has led to is a one-size fits all policy being imposed, which doesn't take account of the unique and different needs of the many village halls and community centres in North Herts.
So, for Councillor Peter Burt to say in Cabinet on 27 September "I am very unhappy with this, because in March we were very emphatic that August was to be the deadline. If it was not completed by then, the curtain was going to come down" is very, very unhelpful. It's little wonder my inbox this week has been full of messages from concerned residents who believe their community centre has been slated for closure.
Conservative Councillors should absolutely not be pre-empting the outcome of negotiations and hinting that they will close down vital community assets if resolutions aren't found by set dates. Labour Councillors recommended additional time for negotiations because they were almost finalised in some cases and this relieved the stress on the parties to tidy up any snagging issues. And in the case of Walsworth, which is an old building and has needed additional survey work, the management committee has a lot of new, and important information to consider before it can begin meaningful discussions about what the best option for it, centre users and NHDC is.
Whilst NHDC has many projects which have run beyond deadline, it would be unfair to include the completion of the Community Hall Strategy in this. Because getting the best outcome for centre users is vital and each centre is unique. The extended deadlines Labour Councillors pushed for, but which some Tories opposed, allow the essential time these facilities need to work with NHDC to find resolutions which are viable.
And if either centre in Walsworth were recommended for closure, with no alternative for the many community support groups, sports clubs and societies which use them, Labour Councillors would oppose it. But, let me be emphatic here, neither Walsworth nor St Michael's are being considered for closure at this time.