Monday, 23 July 2012

Community infrastructure

Funding has just been withdrawn from Walk Well, a health promotion scheme which uses St Michael’s each Tuesday. Those who are told they should take more exercise often either don’t know what to do or don’t have the persistence to go on doing it, so there have been advantages in having several places locally to which people can be directed where a serious walk and then some optional social time is on offer; over fifty people were setting off from St Michael’s when I called there last week.

The wider use of the church has done us no harm - we are glad to be partners in promoting well being, they pay rent, their presence helped us convince other funders that improvements to the church were not just for the benefit of the congregation, and a couple of the walkers have even started coming to services. The St Michael’s users would like to continue on a self-help basis, but they will only be able to manage a lower rent.

The local FE College is just withdrawing from its ten year old lease on the 1960s building which is our former Bishop Edward King Church. It stepped in when the church closed in 2002. We made an agreement that it would lease the building for no rent - but that it would invest capital in it and allow the church and community to use it.

This arrangement benefited everyone. The building was re-roofed and the toilets upgraded including the installation of a new toilet with disabled access. The College was able to deliver mainly computer based training in the middle of a local community at lower cost. Things like our own weekly Chatterbox group and monthly Songs of Praise service continued. Everything from art classes, Brownies and Councillors’ surgeries to piper’s rehearsals, WI and youth choir have somewhere to meet. Even the garden was developed as something of a local park in partnership with bodies like the local Tenants and Residents Association.

But the funding of Further Education in the country has changed radically in the last couple of years and what is now the Grimsby Institute can no longer afford to staff a training centre which will run at a loss. During August we will try to put together a budget to see whether the hourly rent paid by the large number of community groups will be able to cover the basic overhead costs so that we can go on running it as a Community Centre on a break even basis, as we have been doing with the Littlecoates Community Centre elsewhere in the parish.

And, although it does not affect us so directly, another Community Centre is closing. The Yarborough Community Centre is actually part of the school next door to it. The school is becoming an Academy so it appears the whole of the property will become part of the assets of a new independent group and will no longer be something the local authority can make available. I went along last week to talk with one organisation which has used the Centre for a while to check whether it had found a new home and, as it happens, it was a neighbouring church which has been able to offer it one.
One reaction to all this news (which has come in the space of the last two weeks) is that those who rely upon small church and voluntary sector groups to play their part in the ‘big society’ may underestimate the effect that these sorts of cuts and changes make to our viability. Tightening the health service budget, cutting the adult education budget, and pushing through the Academy process might not appear to be things which effect us.  But the cumulative result of the loss of £500 income here, new responsibility for building maintenance there, and the disappearance of a neighbouring community facility elsewhere puts us under unexpected pressure.

These sort of potential and actual losses in activities and facilities makes community action and service much harder. How will community groups serve others when they don’t have income streams? How will churches make their facilities available to others when they can’t afford to repair their roofs? Where will Brownies meet when the last hall closes?

Neverthless, this is all part of a larger picture. In this parish in turn the Wybers Wood Community Centre (as long ago as the 1980s), St Michael’s Church Hall (early in my time), the Great Coates Reading Room (more recently) and the Yarborough Community Centre (now) have closed (although money from selling the Church Hall site has been invested in equipping St Michael’s church itself for wider community use, and a new Village Hall may be built in Great Coates). So the process is not new. And, it must be said, this may in part be because people now choose to socialise and collaborate in such places much less than they did.
This is actually one of the points on which the Chief Executive of Voluntary Action in North East Lincolnshire challenged Churches Together in North East Lincolnshire at its recent AGM. She (and others) had been invited to give us a different perspective on our context. She actually mentioned what I think she called a surplus of community buildings in decline competing for the rapidly reducing grant income which had previously sustained them.
She hinted that a better future might include more collaboration and fewer but better centres of excellence. She also asked us to consider whether issues like new levels of unemployment and poverty should attract our attention and efforts as much as sustaining the old form of infrastructure.

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