A new management committee is being put together after Freshbrook Village Group, which ran the community centre since it opened in 1984, was de-registered by the charity commission at the end of September for not submitting accounts for the last six years.
Landlords Swindon Council immediately shut the building on the grounds that there was no legal body to run it, before calling a public meeting on 30 September. In a packed hall well over 100 people demanded to know why the council had suddenly closed the centre, causing disarray for user groups like the community cafe, the parent and toddler group, Sullivan School of Dance, bingo club, Raleigh dog training, and members of the licensed bar.
Carol Gibbons, coordinator of the community cafe, told the meeting the council should have worked with the community to find a solution to avoid closure.
Phil Packer said the licenced bar paid £14,000 annual rent to the charity and many of its 150 members, particularly retired people, did not have anywhere to go and were likely to miss out on their annual Christmas party. He wanted to know where the funds had gone and also why the council could not have intervened earlier.
Council community halls officer Chris Hunt explained that the building was leased to the community and the council was not in a position to interfere with management or to take over the running of the charity.
She had repeatedly tried to contact Village Group secretary Terry Iles to offer assistance without success. The council had to protect its asset after the charity commission made its decision. Without a management committee there was no insurance or health and safety compliance.
Coun Peter Greenhalgh said, “the council had no obligation or desire to run the community centre, nor did it want to delve into the charity’s affairs, but we will work with residents to find a way forward to reopen the building – if that’s what people want.”
Tina Mackie said, “in the past few people turned up to village group annual general meetings which is why management became so weak; it’s lovely to see so many people now that we have a crisis. If we want to see the building open again, we have to work together to rebuild our community centre.”
Many of the user groups have been accommodated in the community rooms at Millbrook Primary, but the dog training groups are now homeless and want to return.
Whether a licensed bar remains in the centre will test the resolve of a future management committee. Youth worker Dave Davison said many more youth activities could take place but he believed licenced premises in close proximity to young people is not appropriate.
He said a business plan had to be put together to see if the centre could generate funds in other ways.
Following the meeting over twenty people met council officers several times in October to discuss an application to start a new charity and the responsibilities and liabilities of running a community centre.
Another public meeting will have to be held to agree a new constitution and members of a new management committee.
Statement on the closure of Freshbrook Village Group and Freshbrook Community Centre by Terry Iles, ex-Secretary Freshbrook Village Group
I expect over the past few days since the news broke of the problems at Freshbrook Community Centre a lot of opinions have been expressed as to why it has happened, and who is responsible.
For some years now it became harder and harder to manage the Freshbrook Community Centre and the Freshbrook Village Group for many reasons. Below are my own view on the situation and the background to it:
The centre was leased to the community to be managed by the community. It was, however, basically run by one person – me – doing everything for the last few years.
* It is too much for one person!;
* I have done most of the voluntary work in managing the centre for several years;
* People who had joined the management committee did not offer to do anything to help;
* People who said they would do things did not;
* Some people left the committee after only a few weeks of joining. Possibly because they had taken on something bigger than they thought it was;
* Many people had views on many things and as to "what the committee should do" but did nothing themselves;
* less and less people are prepared to "get involved in the local community";
* Another couple of people would have made such as difference;
* A number of abortive AGM's were held with either too few or nobody attending;
* Without a committee many things cannot be done, or decided, or changed. One person does not have a mandate to do these things. They can only "hold the fort".
Finance & rising costs
* Four treasurers who did not even complete three years in office between them, in two cases leaving the books not up to date when they handed them back;
* Wages – low wage organisations such as our charity bore the brunt of minimum wage increases that were well above inflation;
* Fuel costs – again fuel cost have increased well above inflation;
* Expenses in total were therefore exceeding the income for some time;
* Income fell when the playgroup left the centre after 30 years (first in the temporary building and then in the permanent one) and moved into the school. This cost the centre approx £3,000 per year in lost revenue;
* My own company was providing toilet paper, towels soap etc at no charge. I view this expenditure as donations but it comes to several thousand pounds over the past few years. It was money the charity didn't have but it would have been needed to get the products and services elsewhere. In the current financial climate, I was finding it harder to justify the donation.
* When the Freshbrook Community Centre was built Swindon Borough Council had a large Community Development Division and a budget to support community centres with grants. Both of these have shrunk to nothing in the last twenty years leaving hard pressed volunteers strugglin:
* When funding was available for various initiatives during the same period it ws directed at other organisations, or put into schools where it in general does not benefit the wider community who have no children of school age;
* A phrase bandied around in many government policies now is "Community Anchors". We have seen nothing of this in Freshbrook and no funding or Local Government action to create one on Freshbrook or anywhere else. What we have seen is funding given to other organisations in the area with announcements being the first we heard and money pumped into schools;
* Considering the Charity Commission has in it's removal letter left the door open for reinstatement of the Freshbrook Village Group, the council gave no help or support in this, and simply told me we cannot go on and they wanted the building back, and took our licence away – all within a few days;
The New School
* From the moment the proposal to build a new primary school came out rumours went around that the centre would shut when the school opened as it would have Community Facilities;
* This was countered by explaining the Freshbrook Village Group had a lease until 2016;
* As for the school we were told at a public meeting organised by the council by Councillor Gary Perkins said the community centre was safe and the term "Community Facilities" in the proposals did not mean 100% that they were rooms for hire but they could be a lot of things, i.e. clinics, libraries, etc.. It does appear that now they are complete they directly compete with the centre, although thankfully so for the evicted groups, some have found space there;
* Someone told me recently that if the council wanted to close us when the school opened they would find a way despite the lease to the charity!;
* The Mayor came in the centre after the school opened and was speaking to Rachel in our Office told her the Community Centre was not needed now the School was open;
* Is it coincidence all this happed as soon as the school opened?
* Trading Subsidiary – Freshbrook Community Trading Company Ltd. (the management of the bar which paid rent to the Freshbrook Village Group)
* The trading company which ran the bar always struggled to make a profit and I think it is almost certainly going to record a loss for 2008-09 although I may be wrong;
* The trading company management had this year requested a reduction in 'rent' (its contribution to the charity for the use of the facility);
* This was despite a rent freeze for some periods over the years;
* This despite the trading subsidiary increasing the expenses upon the charity (the Village Group) by installing two air conditioning units a few years ago without extra contributions to cover the extra electricity used;
* The same applies to the installation of extra TV's over the years;
* When the charity felt it could not afford to employ so many staff the trading company view was – 'too bad – you have to, it's your job and not ours'. No spirit of compromise or team working.
I am sorry the centre has come to such a sudden end but if I had not stayed on doing what I did, put in the hours of time 'down the centre' two or three time a day, on Saturdays and Sundays, and called it a day before the Charity Commission and Swindon Borough Council acted, then the Freshbrook Community Centre would have closed sooner.
On reflection I should have looked to handing the keys in when the AGM held at the end of 2008 failed to produce a sustainable committee.
I am sorry it has all ended so suddenly and I know it was a shock to many but I have told a number of people at the centre over the past year that we may be at a point where the keys should be handed back. It was becoming inevitable given the position we were in unless something changed.
If more people had got involved doing just a little bit each, then things could have been different.
Some people say 'it's my entire fault!' – but surely I cannot be held responsible for:
* People that do not want to do voluntary work;
* People who took the centre for granted and put nothing into managing it;
* A pre-school that moves on another site "as the centre will close when the new school opens";
* A trading company that made little, or no, money but has regularly increased centre costs without paying more;
* Expenses exceeding income.
What I am responsible for is:
* Putting thousands of hours into the community centre and the FVG charity over twenty years;
* Working single-handed to keep things going for over almost two years;
* Donating thousands of pounds through my business providing products and services;
* Working voluntarily – even now – to sort out the winding up, clearing up loose ends and ensure staff and suppliers receive what monies the charity has left.
If more people could get involved and somebody and/or business cleared all of the debt, then all could change providing the centre is returned by the council for the balance of its lease and the licence re-awarded without penalty.
I am sorry that the staff lost their jobs and the community centre is closed but there was nothing to be done given the management problems and the financial situation.
I have enjoyed the 20 plus years I was involved and made many friends at the centre over the years. I wish everyone well for the future.