Sunday, 20 November 2011

Where Is Our Money?

Residents demand answers after 250 march to save St. John's Community Centre

Any talk of "consultation" would seem superfluous now after a massive 250 local residents turned out to let councillors and the London Borough of Hounslow know that we want to keep our Community Centre open.

The march, organised by the Independent Community Group (ICG) and supported by the St. John's Residents' Association, The Isleworth Society (TIS) and 32 user groups based at the Centre, at one point filled Linkfield Road from the gates of St. John's Gardens almost as far back as Loring Road. Two local councillors - Theo Dennison (Syon, one of the Lead Members responsible for presenting the Report to Cabinet proposing closure) and Ed Mayne (Isleworth, Cabinet member) - attended the protest and took the time to hear residents' concerns.

Nobody can now be in any doubt at all as to the determination of local people to halt this latest assault by the Lampton Road bureaucracy upon Isleworth's ability to organise and to function as a community.

And now the attention has turned to the small matter of the £250,000 which was set aside at the 2010 Hounslow Council Budget Meeting specifically for the purpose of repairing the roof of the Centre.

When the Lead Member's Report, prepared by senior officers, was submitted to Cabinet on Tuesday, 8th November by Councillors Corinna Smart and Theo Dennison one of the reasons given for closure was the cost that would allegedly be incurred in bringing the property into full repair. Significantly, however, no mention was made of the quarter of a million pounds set aside for this very work by Borough Council in March 2010 at the insistence of the ICG.

Neither of these councillors were members of the local authority at the time of the 2010 Budget Meeting (although some of their Cabinet colleagues were). Did they know about this allocation of funding? And if not, does this mean that senior officers deliberately withheld this crucial information from them when preparing the Report in order to ensure that Cabinet took the "right" decision?

Indeed, is the money even still there? And, if not, where has it gone and under whose authority has it been spent elsewhere (we have been assured that no member decision has been taken at any time authorising any such transfer)?

The lack of co-operation by chief officers towards the Community Group at the latter end of the coalition administration of 2006-2010, at best tolerated and in all probability encouraged or possibly even instigated by our Conservative coalition partners, is a matter of demonstrable record. However if it transpires that chief officers have ignored the legally binding decision of a Budget Meeting then the line is crossed into completely new territory and such an act could not possibly be ignored nor swept under the carpet.

Residents supported by the ICG are using all means available to them to gain access to this vital information and this blog will be updated with any new developments. 

Watch this space.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

It's Not a Problem, the Answer is No!

This was the response I gave when asked by the then Lead Member for Finance, Councillor Gerald McGregor, whether the Community Group councillors who at the time represented the wards of Syon and Isleworth would have a problem with him implementing an officer recommendation to "dispose of" (i.e. sell for development) the Community Centre on St. John's Road.

Councillor McGregor fully understood our position, and obligingly withdrew the proposal from his list of potential economies.

Our position was simple. We were councillors for Isleworth and for Syon. More than that, we were community councillors for Isleworth and for Syon. This building served over 30 user groups in our own back yard. If, holding the balance of power on the Council, we couldn't keep this building open then there was little point in us being there.  A little while later we secured £250,000 from the 2010 council budget for some essential repairs to the roof of the building for good measure.

The senior officers bided their time. A change in administration and, they deduced, the election of councillors less committed to their individual wards and less inclined ideologically to support independent community groups meant they could once again offer up St. John's Community Centre as a sacrificial lamb, in preference to any of those internal departmental savings that senior officers so dislike.

Sadly, it appears they were right. A report to Cabinet (formerly known as the Executive) on November 8th agreed "in principle" to dispose of this popular and widely-used community resource, "subject to consultation".

The significance of this caveat is moot. On the surface it would appear to suggest that massive public opposition to the closure could have the effect of halting it. On the other hand, no provision has been made for returning the item to Cabinet following any such consultation, which would conversely suggest that the decision is considered to be final irrespective of the outcome of a consultation that is being undertaken purely as a statutory duty.

The Community Group has taken a more relaxed and engaging approach towards the current Labour administration than had been the case in the past. Individual councillors have seemed more accommodating, more prepared to reach out to us as a community and to embrace the unique localist spirit that remains in Isleworth in particular in spite of our election reverse.

But we would be failing in our duty to our local people were we to stand back and watch the desecration of our community's infrastructure. Whether such spiteful assaults on our civic life are member or officer driven, we must resist them and we will.

Back in February over 300 Isleworth residents braved appalling weather to march in support of our Library and Public Hall. We call upon them to turn out again to defend St. John's Community Centre.  We were supported at that time by our Conservative MP Mary Macleod and by our three Isleworth Labour ward councillors.  We hope we will be again.

Isleworth is a vibrant, thriving community. We will not be closed down, whether for budgetary savings or for political advantage. Please turn out on Saturday and support St. John's residents and user groups as they fight to keep a valuable community asset in the hands of the local people.

March to Save St. John's Community Centre

Saturday, 19th November 2011

Meet outside the Centre, 10.30 am