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March 31, 2010

Too little, too late?

Glasgow City Council’s decision to hive off all of its cultural and community assets to an ’arms length’ organisation, was roundly criticised at the time as being undemocratic.  Once owned by the people of Glasgow, these assets are now the property of a private charitable company. This new body, Culture and Sport Glasgow, had earmarked 11 community centres for closure at the end of this month.  At the eleventh hour, they’ve agreed to listen to any bids the local communities might have to take them over.  Some think it’s too little, too late

Gerry Braiden, Evening Times

A lifeline has been thrown to community centres in Glasgow threatened with closure.

The city council is offering community groups the chance to run the centres in their area. But community activists claim the conditions it is imposing would make it difficult to take on the venture.

Eleven centres are earmarked to shut by the end of this month as part of cuts by the council’s arms-length Culture and Sport Glasgow body, which also runs the city’s museums, art galleries, libraries and sport centres.

The council ratified the decision to shut the facilities, has now said it is prepared to allow any of the centres to stay open if they receive viable plans for their use from community groups and social enterprise organisations.

The centres, considered to be in very poor condition or suffering from lack of use, will now close on March 31. But rather than their immediate demolition or sale, they will be marketed between April and June, although any proposed takeover would need to meet a series of stringent conditions.

But trade union leaders have described the move as “a complete sham” and said the offers are a thinly veiled attempt by politicians to respond to mounting criticism over the closures.

Unison has said that conditions imposed by the council on interested community groups would make a takeover practically impossible. The plans, expected to be approved on Friday, come after revelations that Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon sought meetings with the leadership of the city council after the decision to close a centre, claiming the figures were flawed.

Councillor George Ryan, executive member for business and the economy, said: “Most recreational facilities are local assets, often providing a range of services to meet the needs of a local community and acting as a social hub for an area.

“We therefore welcome approaches from groups interested in taking over the management of these centres. The council can offer support with the preparation of a business case which is needed to demonstrate that the property will be satisfactorily managed, utilised and funded in the future.”

The proposed closures are among Culture and Sport’s intended cuts of £3.4 million in the coming year, which will see some museums close on Mondays. Hundreds of staff will lose up to £1500, in part due to the closures, with balloting for strike action in the next week.

But the announcement of the closure programme has led to several councillors receiving enquiries from groups interested in taking over the management permanently. SNP MSP Bob Doris is coordinating efforts to save Cadder Community Centre and Ledgowan Tenants Hall in north Glasgow; a church group has expressed interest in Lorne Street Community Centre; and Yorkhill Housing Association has enquired about Overnewton Recreation Centre.

But they must be willing to enter into a 21-year lease with an option to purchase, have access to cash for rent/non-domestic rates, utilities, insurance, security and property maintenance and have a clear business plan.

Sam McCartney of Unison said: “This is a complete sham, where the council is attempting to protect its political masters from mounting criticism in communities. Offering these facilities for takeover is an attempt by the council to remove responsibility for the closures from themselves. Culture and Sport has made it clear it can’t afford these and conditions have now been set up which have not made it an any easier for community activist groups to run. They aren’t fooling anyone.”

As part of the savings plan, Argo Recreation Centre in Drumchapel is due to close. The centre is home to the Evening Times Community Champion finalists, the Argo Boxing Club.

The club’s coach, David Savage, said: “Most of the people involved are volunteers who also have full-time jobs, so this idea would mean asking an awful lot of them.

“It seems the council is more interested in funding other projects, but if enough money was put into our centres, we would not have all the problems that badly affect our communities, such as crime and drugs.

“In principle, it seems a good idea, but there would be a lot of time and money involved, which most people don’t have.

“I suppose it’s a case of, if you want something, you have to work hard for it, so we will have to work hard at keeping our community centre going.

“At the moment, Argo’s volunteers are looking at new premises, so we will have to wait and see if anything is to come from this latest announcement.”

A spokesman for Wyndford Recreation Centre said they would have to review the implications and the viability of the community to keep the centre going.

He said: “The community would need to pull together to keep the centre going, but it is a possibility. Local people are very angry at the closing of the centre. They have spoken to Culture and Sport Glasgow and have put in funding bids to help secure the future of the centre.”