We don’t know exactly how many community centres have closed in recent years because nobody collects this information since Community Matters shut down in 2016.
However, we can be certain that, as a result of cuts forced on local authorities, thousands of urban communities have now lost the buildings that provided countless meeting, activity and training spaces. Parent-and-toddler groups, lunch clubs for old people, welfare rights advice and youth and sports clubs have gone, often from the most disadvantaged parts of our cities and towns.
I was feeling quite downhearted when I visited Pastor Mairi Radcliffe at St Martin’s Community Centre in Allenton, with Carl Willis, community development manager for Derby City Council. I left two hours later inspired by what the leaders of this community project had achieved and certain that it contained lessons for similar projects.
St Martin’s Church and Community Centre (above) is located in Boulton, which is in one of the most deprived wards in England. It serves 5,000 people.
In 2012, Allenton received a ten-year, £1m Big Local grant from the Big Lottery Fund for projects chosen by local people. Working with Big Local and Derby Homes, which manages the city’s social housing, the church secured a share of the funding to convert the tired 1930s church hall into a modern community centre.
A bold plan to transform the centre into Radcliffe’s vision of "radical hospitality and extravagant generosity" is now being put into practice.
The funding has provided meeting and event rooms, a community café with a training kitchen for adults with special needs, a sensory garden and an outdoor play area. The refurbished main hall can host theatre, youth clubs, toddler groups, dance sessions and big community events. New toilets and facilities for disabled people will be available to local shoppers.
Derby City Council has confirmed that work carried out at the centre so far should be worth £1m. Remarkably, the project’s budget is £196,000. Derby Homes has mobilised many of its contractors to carry out work voluntarily or at cost. Chairs have been donated and the café has been furnished to a very high standard without cost.
The downside is that progress has been slow, Radcliffe says, because contractors working for nothing or at cost understandably fit it in when they can.
But room bookings and café use already suggest the centre will be able to cover its running costs. Energy costs have been reduced by dint of installing insulation and more efficient windows, lighting and heating. And Willis is certain the enhanced profile in the community and increased usage will make it easier to attract grants.
This centre has come out of a strong partnership between church, social housing provider and local authority.
Radcliffe says there are under-used church buildings in many areas. And, as Willis points out, church halls functioned as community centres in the past and could be the sustainable centres of the future.
Councils and social housing providers must be prepared to work with faith groups and to invest time and money in their buildings, subject to safeguards about future inclusive use. Churches also often have access to large volunteer bases through their congregations.
Willis says you need a vision and people with long-term commitment and willingness to give beyond what they are employed to do. It’s about the right people, at the right time in the right place, he says.
I’d love to clone Radcliffe and Willis, whose energy and persistence over three years has brought this magnificent project to fruition. I’m hoping to persuade them to put on masterclasses in community centre development. If they do, book quickly.
Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser