Monday 7 February 2011

Will Cameron's Favourite Council Kill Off the Borough's 'Big Society'?

Tonight at 7.00pm Hammersmith and Fulham's Conservative Cabinet is set decide whether to sell off community buildings housing some of the most active 'big society' volunteer groups in the Borough. The Council report recommends (see page 229) that councillors agree to sell off eight community buildings - many currently housing a wide range of important services. H&F is well known as Cameron's favourite Council so this decision is little short of a a slap in the face for the Prime Minister's somewhat vague 'big society' policy initiative. Unhelpfully, this comes at a time when it is under attack from national figures from across the political spectrum.

Palingswick House houses twenty three community groups, the Irish Cultural Centre is the epitome of  the 'big society' and new groups of residents from all political persuasions have come forward offering run the Sands End Community Centre and the Village Hall at 58 Bulwer Street. Meanwhile, key services such as those supplied to vulnerable children are being ripped out of the Askham Family Centre.

The Conservative Leader of H&F Council debated his proposals with me on yesterday's Politics Show (See 46:41 minutes in). The Conservative's even had the Council's Press Office tell people that "if we do not sell these buildings, we will have to find £20million more from service budgets.” But that is plainly rubbish as it will only save between £700,000.00 to £800,000.00 per year in interest payments and that's assuming they actually find a buyer for all the buildings on their list and at a reasonable price in this market. They have struggled to do that in the past. Some building they put on the market three years ago still sitting empty and unsold.

To put the £700k to £800k figure in perspective, it's worth noting that the Conservative run Council have paid about that to just one consultant since 2008; that they were attacked by a Conservative MP for wasting £5million of tax payers' money on "political propaganda"; they wasted a quarter of a million pounds because they couldn't muster the competence to turn the Town Hall lights off and they're throwing away £35million on new and completely unwanted Town Hall offices. There are many other available options available to finding any financial shortfall.

Personally, I don't object to selling buildings that are of no use but even then I would only want to sell those that fit that criteria when market conditions are right - which isn't now. The problem with the majority of the buildings the Conservatives are looking to sell tonight is that they are of crucial use to the communities they sit in and once sold it would be very hard for any future Administration to ever get them back. This is deliberate.

Meanwhile, we have active citizens offering to take these facilities over and run them for themselves. I cannot, for the life of me, understand why the Conservatives have refused to work with these groups to come up with a positive way forward.

No comments: