Musings From The Padded Cell

The Eccleshill Mechanics Institute (EMI) – A Right Of Reply

“A committee is a group of people who individually can do nothing, but who, as a group, can meet and decide that nothing can be one.”
Fred Allen

My article concerning the plight of a local community centre – the EMI – caused a bit of a stir a few weeks ago, in particular, my criticism of an organisation that appeared to be seeking to take over control of the EMI.

Cllr Sunderland

In my piece I asked several questions of the Chair of Inspired Neighbourhoods – Cllr Jeannette Sunderland (Lib Dem) – and, eventually, I got an offer to meet Cllr Sunderland to hear her take on this story.

We know each other well, enough to respect our differing views and so met at the jewel in the crown of Inspired Neighbourhoods (IN), the Wright Watson Centre based in Idle village.

The centre opened in 2015 and houses the local library plus offers business space at commercial rents.

Cllr Sunderland is a time served local politician so she knows her way around the corridors down at City Hall. She is also resilient, as you have to be flying the flag of the Lib Dems in Bradford.

The background to the financial problems facing the EMI earlier this year – according to Cllr Sunderland – was rooted in both central and local government cuts, well documented as far as their impact on libraries and other community facilities nationally.

David Cameron’s coalition also introduced Community Asset Transfers through The Localism Act of 2011

These are defined as “the transfer of management and/or ownership of public land and buildings from its owner (usually a local authority) to a community organisation (such as a Development Trust, a Community Interest Company or a social enterprise) for less than market value – to achieve a local social, economic or environmental benefit.”

Bradford Council’s desire to shed itself of the financial burden of operating centres like the EMI have brought many to a financial cliff. Typical of many, the EMI had a small number of paid staff, sadly recently made redundant.

Clearly, if the Council is walking away from such facilities then the communities that use them have to step up to the plate. In reality, this is far from simple albeit, no different from your local volunteer run sports club or many similar organisations.

Much of what we have enjoyed for generations is disappearing fast like it or not. But if the local purse is so stretched, where does a body like IN come into the picture?

IN, established in 2009, are one of several so-called community anchors in Bradford. At this point it really does start to get confusing.

To you and I these bodies may appear simply extensions of the public sector and I made the point that there is duplication in abundance.

Where they do differ is having people in the know and apparently able to access serious money from the major funding pots such as the Big Lottery, Sport England and the rest. It is here that the challenges to organisations such as the EMI are clear.

For instance, to be able to raise a seven-figure bank facility to fund the build of the Wright Watson Centre – during the credit crunch as well – suggests IN, even if a fledgling body, has serious clout.

But if satellite organisations such as IN can pick-off the likes of the EMI and others on the cheap is this really for the benefit of the local community? Or is it empire building on the part of groups who we may find hard to bring to account at a later date?

IN would counter by saying they are preserving community centres. In a subsequent written response to this piece before publication, Cllr Sunderland made a valid point as follows:

“I am sorry that you have not raised in this piece the real question about why, when its board has two members of another local community anchor as members, did Eccleshill Mechanics get itself into the state it did?”

I duly apologised for my lack of editorial support.

So the EMI has to take some responsibility for the situation it found itself in; in a changing world it’s Board have clearly been caught napping even if they might argue a David and Goliath scenario.

Equally, given the scale of the EMI the term “Board” is perhaps fanciful; in reality this is simply a committee of the kind you find up and down the country.

Having access and the knowledge to exploit the clipboard carrying box-tickers doling out the major sources of grant funding gives IN an immense advantage. And IN clearly do have muscle as evidenced above.

Consider too, their latest project, The Greenwood Centre, situated in nearby Wrose on a predominantly white working-class estate. In have grand plans here.

Their Annual Report claims that they are “bringing inward investment of £3.2m” here but what need are they satisfying?

They promise cricket and football pitches but there is an abundance locally and hardly over-used.

A health centre is included but there already exists one just around the corner.

Grandly they label this “Inspired Neighbourhoods’ newest community hub”; did I mention empire building?

Call me a cynic but, on the one hand we have a local authority divesting itself of just the same types of facilities that IN can access oodles of cash for and build seemingly at will.

Additionally there are numerous privately owned, under-used buildings that could serve many of the needs IN appear to have created. The funders though love these grand designs ticking as they do every available box of their witless politically correct criteria.

Heaven knows how much the new sporting facilities are costing but I guarantee if you offered local clubs a tiny fraction of the money about to be splashed around for a few photo shoots, we would have far more impact and longevity.

Again, in the interests of balance, Cllr Sunderland did not choose to challenge this point.

To summarise; my beef here is not whether bodies like IN actually do any good for local communities – how can you measure this – but that they appear to be doing just what a local authority should be. So, surely we need one or the other?

Critically too, a small number of people not necessarily attached to a community they now have influence over can really start to amass serious local power and with access to local politicians. That cannot be healthy.

Our suspicions of politicians, locally and nationally, are well founded but one should not tar them all with the same brush. However, IN does nothing but leave me feeling very uncomfortable about it’s longer-term impact on the places we live.

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