Council set to pull plug on funding of community centres from April

Hedworthfield Community Centre, one of the borough's community centres
Hedworthfield Community Centre, one of the borough's community centres

Funding for community centres across South Tyneside is set to be pulled by council chiefs from April.

Council bosses say all 12 of the borough’s community associations will have to operate as independently funded Community Interest Companies in the future.

Management committees were asked to draw up a business plan detailing the transfer of assets as part of a review into services delivered by the local authority.

Council bosses have now agreed in principle to develop long term sustainable partnership arrangements for most of the borough’s 12 community associations.

In some cases this may involve the current centre’s management committees taking over the running of the site.

For others, expressions of interest will be sought from other organisations to manage the sites.

As well as being able to raise funds through memberships, usage fees and lettings, these groups will also be able to access external funding streams to make the facilities viable.

Coun Ed Malcolm, lead member for innovation and resources said: “As a consequence of government cutbacks in financial support, the council must consider new methods of delivery to provide sustainable services for the people of the borough.

“The government has reduced its grant to the council by 45 per cent with further reductions planned. It is, therefore, with a heavy heart that we will have to withdraw all funding to Community Associations from next April.

“However, this does not signal the closure of community associations – far from it. By creating community interest companies and working in partnership with them, we believe they can offer the same, if not better, facilities than before for local people.”

The council has a strong track record in successfully using this model. Groundwork Trust took over the management of Marsden Road community association which led to the construction of a new, purpose-built centre enjoying key links with South Tyneside College.

A community interest company was also formed at South Tyneside Gymnastics Centre which has more than 500 regular users and has seen investment in the building as well as an expansion of activities.

Similarly Mortimer Community Network Community Interest Company (CIC), which took over Mortimer Community Centre last February, has made some fantastic changes to that facility. In partnership with the Council and the school, which is based on the site, they have maintained and developed the childcare facilities, extensively renovated the childcare room, created their own entrance and café and created ten 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.”

The proposed changes have implications for staff currently working at community associations across the borough.

Coun Malcolm said: “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.”

He added: “Against a background of reducing financial support from central government, we are trying all routes to keep these important community facilities open.

“With less money available to local councils, it is important that community associations become self-sufficient as this is the best way of protecting these valuable facilities. We believe this model of delivery is the best way of ensuring they are viable in the long term.”