Monday 20 June 2011

In Defence of Bath Place Community Venture & The Old Library

In Defence of Bath Place Community Venture & The Old Library

"Those things alone are good which are honourable"

The Leamington Spa town motto

It was around Christmas time of 2009 when I first arrived in Bath Place @ The Old Library for the annual festive dinner in the act of wooing (apparently successfully as we are now engaged and have a new baby daughter) one Melissa Rood, who, as it happened, is the learning Co-ordinator at Bath Place. I came to understand quite clearly that the Organization was playing a necessary and critical role in the Community of Leamington Spa and felt compelled instantly to get stuck in and get involved.

I started to hang around quite a bit and before too long I was put to work building the Veggie Table Café II which for me, personally, has proved to be one of the most fulfilling and satisfying labours of my career thus far. I say that after working on projects as varied as Charles Darwin Centre at The Museum of Natural History in London and The Royal Theatre in Bath both of which were high profile, multi-million pound designs.

As a craftsman, it is especially rewarding to use ones skills to contribute in a meaningful way and for me, knowing that the Venture had suffered a devastating fire a few months before, to help the Café to rise from the ashes of a terrible tragedy was both a enormously proud and humbling experience at the same time. The Café now is serving healthy & delicious meals at a very affordable price and I would challenge anyone to find a better bowl of soup well, anywhere really...

I spent the next months getting to know the inner workings of the Charity and helping to run the Virtual School for Asylum Seeking Minors under the guidance of Melissa, along with a wide range of Volunteers and in December of 2010 both Melissa, myself and others with close ties to the Community, were elected to serve as Trustees on the Board of Directors.

Over the past 2 years Bath Place has, with the dedication of the Staff and the help of countless volunteers, managed to resurrect the Ground floor of the Building and most of the basement and, during the day and evening is now home to numerous businesses, Social Enterprises, Educational activities and an endless stream of local individuals, groups, meetings, with vocational training, counselling sessions, art exhibits, benefit concerts and many other important local events.

Just as an example, where else can you find, as I do on a typical Thursday night, the head of the NHS for Warwickshire PCT addressing the Fabian Society, The Women’s Institute, ESOL tutoring, an Anandky Yoga class, a Zumba Dance session and (as if that wasn’t enough) the weekly practice of the much beloved Steel Pan Academy ? We are now also home to the Spires Orchestra, a nationally recognized youth orchestra and also the County Music Service, both integral and highly valued music programs for young people.

Other evenings have hosted the Conservative Party, who generously furnished our IT suite, The Labour Party, All-Party Election Debates, Warwick University, Amnesty International, The Leamington History Group, Multi-faith Groups, Local Weddings, Youth Drama, Employment agencies, U3A and Yoga. The list goes on and on…

It takes an enormous amount of coordination on a very tight budget to keep everything running smoothly and I have put in many hours volunteering in this important work but for me, there are some questions that need to be asked and more importantly, answered as quickly as possible.

First, a little history…

The land where we are situated was granted to the Borough of Leamington Spa in 1899 by a generous land grant from the Wise family for the purposes of a Public Library, an Art & Technical School, a Museum or “any other municipal building” but is currently owned by Warwickshire College due to the fact that the building was transfered by the County Council for the sum of £97 000 in 1999. Now, 12 years on, the College is looking to sell the building for an asking price of around £1.5 million and we are aware of at least one Developer who is interested in converting the Building into high-end Flats & Offices.

We have spent time, money and a massive amount our precious energies on trying to raise the capital to purchase the building but sadly, after searching far and wide, have not as yet found anyone who is willing or able to commit to us that kind of support.

For us, a loan of that nature would create a considerable risk as, although we are a self sustaining Charity, it would be a challenge to be able to cover the repayments on such a loan through our commercial and charitable activities and, as has been widely discussed throughout the sector, Grant Funding has become a lot more scarce and harder to secure than ever before. Due to our lack of "security of tenure" we have faced difficulty in gaining the confidence of Funders who can offer us support.

In short, we are at the epicentre of one of quandaries the Third Sector is facing on both the local and the national level.

The questions therefore that need to be asked are these:

How is it that a Public edifice, built on land granted to the Community over one hundred years ago, could possibly ever be sold to private interests for such a massive profit, especially by a fellow community organisation?

How is it that a Charity that has committed itself to serving the Community for over 35 years fulfilling a genuine need for support and space for everyone, the excluded, the marginalized, the young, the old, from all walks of life, should have to go looking to external entities to essentially pay fifteen times over for a building that has already been purposely built for the use of the Community of Leamington Spa?

How is it that a beautiful and masterfully crafted Grade II Listed building in the heart of a generally prosperous town can be left to degenerate and decay until such time as a Commercial buyer can be found, whilst completely ignoring the efforts and needs of those who have come to use, care for, preserve and even love a Community Asset even despite it’s neglected state ?

I would never wish to cast dispersions on Warwickshire College as they are unquestionably an integral part of the local landscape and far be it from me to question the beneficence of our County Council but in this case, I think they are both acting against the interests of the common good.

In the case of the College, although they kindly allowed us access to the building initially, to intend to sell a Community Asset that was ceded at a very low, almost gifted, price for such an inflated sum to a thriving Community Centre or even a commercial entity, is in my view, unacceptable and I would suspect that, if widely known, many across the political spectrum would share this view as well.

As for the Council, I would only say that perhaps what seemed like a good idea at the time has not turned out to be such a wise decision if honestly reflected through the prism of hindsight. Knowing what I now know about our finances, I could reasonably guarantee that if we were offered a price of £97 000 (or something in that region) we would be able to raise that money in a heartbeat and Local Government would be able credit themselves with a fully functioning, all singing, all dancing Community Anchor that provides a whole range of services and programs that could help and support all kinds of Public activities and Creative events for young and old. To my mind, all things any self-respecting Community should not have to go without.

For the life of me I can’t understand why our existence should be hanging by such a perilous thread although I suppose the argument could be made that a Charity works better when in the midst of a continual struggle for survival. Perhaps it keeps the senses sharp & the focus more concentrated…but I digress.

Presently, we are looking to create Partnerships with other Community and Educational organisations and are exploring the possibility of launching The Leamington Community Venture as a confederation of liked minded Charities, Social Enterprises and Arts Groups but without the support of all three levels of Government and, crucially, a change of heart from Warwickshire College, I’m afraid it’s just a great vision that will never be realized.

In these days when the national discussion is all about Localism, Social Enterprise, Volunteerism and Community Empowerment there isn’t one of these aims that we do not fulfil in every way.

People like to talk about what the “big society” is and there are many who would say they struggle to understand what it actually means, but I’ll say one thing and I say this with all of the conviction I can summon up, if we are not it, then it doesn’t exist…

Clayton Denwood – Site Supervisor

Bath Place Community Venture @ The Old Library