Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Who pays for the buildings?

The issue of community buildings as social infrastructure presses on me again.

There are buildings which have attracted very substantial grants towards their development (over £1 million in some cases) and such large developments have built in income streams from commercial letting of part of their premises.  Centre4 on Nunsthorpe and the Warehouse on Freeman Street are two superb examples in the centre of two of the more deprived parts of Grimsby.  They flourish, and rightly so.

But this model doesn’t work well for multiple smaller ‘village hall’ style developments.  The annual subsidy from the Village Council’s budget for the Great Coates Village Hall as the building loan is paid off and the difficulty of producing the balanced budget needed to re-open the Willows Library are the most striking examples in this parish of how difficult it is to have a sustainable free standing business plan for such venues. 

And, the things which presses on me again this week, this really matters as voluntary and community groups are expected to take up the strain of provision much of which, like that library provision, has most recently been funded or subsidised by the local authority.

One example is the new North East Lincolnshire contract to make youth service provision which is being taken up by a consortium including the YMCA with a small financial contribution from the local authority tapering off to nothing over three years.  The YMCA is approaching local churches this week about partnership which might include free venue provision; alongside Great Coates Village Hall and the Willows Community Church, we own the other three widely used community buildings (the Bishop King Centre, the Littlecoates Community Centre and St Michael’s Church) which might be available in western Grimsby. 

The other example is one particular energetic initiative to establish new lunch clubs with properly cooked meals in a number of smaller community venues - which has brought the environmental health inspectors round the venues making significant demands in each place for building improvements; St Michael’s is one of these places and this fresh challenge came up last week.

I wonder whether anyone in authority really appreciates how the national shift in provision depends on the availability of such venues.  Who is to fund the sorts of provision or improvements these need?  Letting income in all three cases covers immediate expenditure but doesn’t generate developmental surpluses – which is a real issue quite apart from the way some of that letting income has depended on community groups which pay the rent having the sorts of grants which they find more difficult to access today themselves anyway.

There are grant making bodies – the local landfill tax body which supported the new facilities in St Michael’s in 2008 still makes grants up to £50 000 but warns that there is a high level of demand should we wish to reapply or seek to introduce similar facilities at St Nicolas’.

And the church, the major provider with long term commitment, has an additional problem.  Many funders do not want to be seen to ‘subsidise’ religion itself.   For what it is worth, a Churchwarden happens to have done a careful audit last week – two thirds of the 275 or so people who came through the door of St Michael’s last week did so to access a community event rather than a religious activity.

The recently published Consultation Draft for the new North East Lincolnshire Local Plan anticipates 3 500 to 4 000 new houses being built in this parish and along the western edge of town.  This implies a significant amount of ‘Section 106’ contributions from the developers, mainly to assist the local authority make new provision such as roads and schools.  Such money has been used to make community grants in the past, and I’d at least like to initiate a conversation about whether there will be any strategy to support those who are already seeking to sustain the social infrastructure of community buildings (including the development of facilities at St Nicolas’ which is nearest to the fields in which the majority of the new houses will be built).

The view of St Michael’s tower from due west of it isn’t one I’d noticed until last week and is clearly only one which shows up in the winter.

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