Ringside at the Big Society circus

Following my tweets from the Hammersmith and Fulham council cabinet meeting this week, here’s a take on that meeting and the cabinet’s decision to give council rights to sell community buildings.

Note the various betrayals people refer to – the Irish cultural centre’s horror at finding the council had not signed an agreement to extend the lease on the Irish centre and so on. Note also the nature of the vote at the end of the meeting – the cabinet simply stood up, broke for recess and agreed the decision. There wasn’t even a show of hands.

More “Tough Shit, Scrubbers” from Hammersmith Town Hall this week, as that borough’s appalling cabinet ignored pleas from locals to delay a decision to sell much-loved local community buildings.

Locals (thousands of them, if their petitions are anything to go by) wanted the council to give or extend leases on the Sands End community centre, the popular Irish centre and the Shepherd’s Bush village hall. Several hundred turned up at a cabinet meeting to make that point (rowdily) in person. Lease extensions would give community groups the chance to fundraise and buy the buildings for community use – à la the Big Society, one would have thought. Certainly, that is what locals thought: statements like “the government is talking of the Big Society – well, we ARE the Big Society,” went down a storm all night.

People also wanted the brakes put on a decision to throw 20 or so community groups out of King Street’s Palingswick House and move Toby Young’s proposed West London free school in. Some are bigger than others in Big Society.

The cabinet gave people a hearing, even though the decision to ignore them had clearly been made. Let us walk you through the charade.

We heard a passionate speech from West London school of dance director Anna du Boisson, who paid tribute to the many groups that use the Shepherd’s Bush village hall: church groups, karate, yoga and tai chi organisations, tea-dance groups and exercise classes – “all have a good, loyal membership,’ du Boisson said.

Her dance school (now 25 years old) has 750 children on its books and an admirably egalitarian take on entry criteria: the school offers “a scholarship programme [which] means that nobody is turned away on the basis of the inability to pay fees.” (The school is run and funded by a charity). There is literally nowhere else with the space and wooden floors (for dance) in the borough – with the possible (and ironic) exception, as du Boisson pointed out, of the very room we were sitting in at the Town Hall.

“We would like the opportunity to raise the funds to buy [the village hall],” du Boisson pleaded. “The government is talking of the Big Society. Well, we are the Big Society and selling this hall runs exactly counter to the letter of their objectives. Grant us the lease and we’ll do the rest. Give us the chance to buy it.”

“A bloody disgrace, this council!” yodelled a member of the audience.

Similar tidings from Hilda McCafferty, who spoke on behalf of the popular Irish cultural centre. This group has a particular beef with the cabinet: the council agreed last year to extend the lease on the Irish centre, but is proposing (dastards) a u-turn on that. McCafferty wanted the council to honour its commitment to extend the lease to 2017.

“The lease was signed in good faith by the (Irish cultural centre) trustees – with the understanding that the council would also sign. The trustees weren’t informed that the council hadn’t signed the extension, or that it was proposing to sell the building.”

McCafferty asked that the site be offered first to the Irish cultural centre when the lease expires. “At the very least, the council has a duty to provide time for the centre to raise funds that are necessary to purchase it freehold.” For more than 16 years, “the centre has provided educational and cultural services to the community. These are provided through fundraising and the support of the Irish government since the council withdrew funding.”

A similar line from Nicholas Waldemar Brown who was representing the Save Sands End community centre action group. He described the council’s consultation process as ‘a sham’ and implied that the council played Silly Buggers most of the way through it.

“The council extended the consultation on the pretext that it was listening and wished to get further views. This was not at all the case. The council was obliged to extend the consultation following a courageous challenge by a local pensioner whose quality of life will be impaired if the centre closes.”

Waldemar Brown observed that it had been “the council’s explicit assumption throughout the process that the centre would close,” even though the the majority of people consulted were against such a closure and even though the decision made no financial sense.

“We told the council that selling the centre would be a false economy. Why relocate services elsewhere with all the costs that would entail when those services are doing just fine where they are? Has the council weighed the costs of relocation against the benefits of staying? No. No figures exist for any such relocation.”

Next: an entertaining, if ultimately fruitless, bash between Hammersmith Labour MP Andy Slaughter, council leader Stephen Greenhalgh and council Labour group leader Stephen Cowan. Those of us who followed this council when Slaughter and Cowan ran it still blink at their recent reincarnation as revolutionaries, but we won’t carp about that for now. We must keep our eyes on the targets, even if we sometimes feel they shift between parties.

“I will ask a question in three parts!” bellowed Slaughter. “One – how much money do you intend to get for Palingswick House now that you’re passing it over to the West London Free school? Two – all three of these organisations have come forward with proposals to running those in a commercial way. Will you negotiate seriously with the very serious people you see in this room, so that those buildings can remain in community hands and not at a cost to the council? Three – will you stop misrepresenting these buildings, which are the heart of society and community in Hammersmith?

“Thank-you, Andy, for that speech and your question in three parts,” came Greenhalgh.

“What the hell are you frightened of?” Cowan bawled at Greenhalgh. “You had your press office publish a series of figures saying that if you didn’t sell these buildings, you would have to make £20m of further cuts to frontline services. Could you explain how you calculated that? Can you explain why you’re saying you’re not cutting frontline services when you’ve heard from people tonight that those buildings are housing frontline services…?”

“We inherited this from you and it’s your responsibility,” Greenhalgh yelled over the crowd.

“I appreciate you getting upset here,” returned Cowan over the howls. “What we’re asking you to do is work with these people… you will come out a bigger administration.”

“Thanks for the advice,” said Greenhalgh, “but your big idea was to switch the lights off in the town hall extension. Pathetic.”

So it went until Greenhalgh called a recess – and passed the vote on a nod as the cabinet stood to take a break. A farce extraordinaire, in an era which is not short of them – an irate audience, a tainted opposition, and an administration which is all for the Big Society, as long as it takes place in other boroughs.

Can’t imagine what the next instalment will be. People are organising and fighting. Labour’s mewling from the sidelines, but stained by its recent terms in local and national office. I hope Cowan takes up his own suggestion that the focus moves onto whichever developers end up with these buildings. There’s work to be done against this Conservatism.

Let’s not forget that the four community buildings discussed at this meeting were only four of many the cabinet voted “to release for disposal.” There’s also Fulham Town Hall, Cambridge House and Barclay House, and the information centre in Hammersmith Broadway, among others. The council has sold 58 buildings since it won Hammersmith and Fulham in 2006. The Big Society has been getting smaller in Hammersmith and Fulham for a while.

5 thoughts on “Ringside at the Big Society circus

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