Staff at community centres across South Tyneside are bracing themselves for an uncertain future over the risk of redundancy.
The devastating blow for the 71 employees comes after council chiefs prepare to pull funding from community centres as of April.
The cash-strapped local authority is hoping Community Interest Companies will take over the running of the venues to help safeguard the services provided by the centres to communities.
Seventy one staff – 11 full-time – now face an anxious wait to find out what this means for their jobs.
All staff are expected to receive their 90-days’ notice from the council in due course.
South Tyneside Council says serving 90-day notices on staff is a legal requirement.
One staff member said: “We all knew the council were planning on pulling the funding from community centres. We just didn’t think it would be so soon.
“No one really knows what is going to happen to us. We’ve been told it will probably be December when we will be given our notice but no one is telling us anything for definite.
“We don’t know if we will be transferred to those taking over the running of the centre or if we will have to re-apply for our jobs. No one seems to know anything. It’s not really fair, these are our lives they are playing with.”
Earlier this year, each of South Tyneside’s community associations was asked to draw up a business plan detailing the transfer of assets.
The council has agreed in principle to develop long- term sustainable partnership arrangements for most of the borough’s 12 centres.
In some cases this may involve the current CAs’ management committees taking over the running of the site. For others, expressions of interest will be sought from other organisations to manage the sites.
A council spokeswoman said: “Serving 90 days’ notice to employees at risk of redundancy is a legal requirement. However, it is important to remember that business plans are still being assessed and going through due process.
“Although the 71 council employed staff affected will be served notice by the council, the outcome for each association and staff will vary.
“Anyone who currently works in a CA will have their existing pension contributions protected and frozen if they leave the council’s employment. Their contribution to date will then be available to draw on when they retire. Going forward, CICs will have to make their own arrangements to provide a pension scheme for their staff – just like any other employer.
“We have had a very positive response from Community Association Management Committees and are working closely with potential CICs. We appreciate that changes of this nature can be very unsettling and are doing all we can to minimise the impact on staff through the management of redeployment opportunities, early retirement and voluntary redundancy.”
She added: “It is important to remember that this isn’t about closing community associations but it is actually about being innovative and finding new ways of delivering community centres without the public subsidy.
“We don’t have a legal duty to provide CAs but we are determined to work with community groups to keep centres open.
“The council cannot afford to continue subsidising CAs, they must be able to operate as robust, sustainable businesses providing facilities for the communities they serve.
“We have already had success with new models of delivery at other community associations in the borough and hope to replicate this elsewhere.
Community Interest Companies are already running community centres in South Tyneside.
Groundwork Trust took over the management of Marsden Road Community Association, which led to the construction of a new purpose-built venue.
A CIC was also formed at South Tyneside Gymnastics Centre, which has seen investment in the building at Temple Park and an expansion of activities while Mortimer Community Network CIC took over the running of Mortimer Community Centre, last February.
In partnership with the council and the school based on the site, they have been able to develop the childcare facilities and created their own entrance and cafe, with 10 new jobs.
Rachel Lynch, director at Mortimer Community Network CIC, said: “We are proof that this approach works. When we decided to form a CIC, Mortimer Community Centre was losing money, there had been no investment and there was little to encourage local people to use the centre.
“Now it is a completely different story. The range of activities on offer to people across the generations has been broadened, so the centre is now a vibrant hub of activity seven days a week.
“We have expanded the childcare provision, we now offer the 15 hours of free childcare to two and three-year-olds and on average 60-80 youngsters daily now use our holiday camps.
“We recently secured a £49,000 grant from the Community Foundation’s Fresh Ideas Fund, which will be used to continue to develop the company and allow us to increase job opportunities. In addition, we have also secured Awards 4 All funding, which we will use to offer a brand new over-60s group at the centre.
“We have a long-term plan here at the centre and have only scratched the surface on our potential. We look forward to seeing future growth, working with local organisations and serving the local community.”
Andrew Watts, chief executive of Groundwork South Tyneside and Newcastle, added: “Marsden Road Health and Wellbeing Centre provides a unique opportunity for us to nurture our relationships with the providers based in the building, support our charitable aims, and most importantly, connect with the local community. The two main users of the old building are still based at the centre and are going from strength to strength but the facility is now a one-stop-shop with South Tyneside Homes and a doctor’s surgery on site.
“This strengthens Groundwork’s relationship with South Tyneside Council and utilises our expertise in asset management and community engagement to make the facility a more outward-looking, viable community asset which is now open six days a week and is completely funded through income.”