Minority groups fear the loss of community spaces

More than half of minority ethnic groups polled believe their buildings might close, writes Andy Hillier

Campaign to save the Africa Centre in Covent Garden
Campaign to save the Africa Centre in Covent Garden

For more than 50 years, the Africa Centre in Covent Garden was a focal point of African life in London. It held exhibitions, music performances and political debates.

But two years ago, the 125-year lease on the building was sold to a private developer for £10.5m after the trustees of the charity decided it could no longer afford to stay.

A new Africa Centre opened in Southwark, south London, this autumn, but the sale of the Covent Garden site continues to anger some in the Africa diaspora community - people of African descent.

Hiikmah (she doesn't use a surname) of the pressure group Africa Centre Rise says: "The building was gifted to the African community by the Roman Catholic church as a reparation for slavery. The building was supposed to be in central London and close to parliament so that people of the African community could have their voice."

Amal Medani, chief executive of the Africa Centre, says the Charity Commission did not object to the sale of the lease and, as part of the agreement with the developer, the charity is permitted to hold a summer festival in Covent Garden every year. "This year was our third Africa Centre music festival and it was very successful," she says. "That Afro-descent space is here and preserved."

The Covent Garden building is just one of numerous spaces used by black, Asian and minority ethnic communities that have been lost in recent years, according to a recent study, A Place to Call Home. Published by Locality, the membership body for community-led groups, and the Ubele Initiative, a not-for-profit body that supports African and Caribbean communities in the UK, it says that migrant communities achieved a great deal of success in securing community assets such as community centres over the past 60 years.

But it also says these are being lost or are at risk of closure, attributing this to a range of factors, including gentrification and the reluctance of councils to renew or extend leases. Of the 150 BAME organisations in England that took part in the study, more than half (54 per cent) said that the future of their buildings was "insecure".

The Selby Centre, a multi-purpose venue in Tottenham, north London, that is used by more than 100 social action organisations, is taking steps to secure the future of its lease from Haringey Council on the old school building where it is located, which is due to expire in 2022. Sona Mahtani, chief executive of the Selby Trust, the charity that manages the centre, is optimistic that a solution will be found, but says: "Like many others, we face the prospect of serious rent hikes and continuing short-term leases. This reduces us to short-term caretakers of soon-to-be developed sites, rather than proactive community leaders, able to play a part in transforming the lives of local people."

A Place to Call Home urges central and local government proactively to identify BAME communities that could make use of existing legislation to protect their community assets and assist them to take over the ownership of them. But it also identifies areas where BAME community groups need to improve, including a reluctance to pass on the baton of running key buildings to the younger generation and the need to upgrade their skills in areas such as governance and management.

Resources problems

Yvonne Field, chief executive of Ubele and one of the authors of the report, says it also raises questions about whether communities currently have the resources they need to protect threatened spaces. She played a leading role in keeping the Chestnuts Community Centre in south Tottenham open after it was threatened with closure last year. She says that the fight to save community assets currently relies too heavily on the goodwill of volunteers. "The whole mobilisation process is very time-consuming and very onerous," she says. "Very few people can do it."

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