At Work: Partnerships - Compact in action

Casper van Vark

Straight Road Community Centre and Essex County Council.

Advocacy service has helped the community group with the purchase of its own building.

The problem

The Straight Road Community Centre (SRCC) is a community group based in Colchester. It was set up by local residents to purchase the Straight Road Centre, a building owned by Essex County Council. Originally a school, it is currently home to a community-run pre-school.

In July 2001, the council asked the pre-school to vacate the premises by July 2002 so the building could be sold for possible redevelopment as residential properties. The council tried to help the pre-school relocate, but no alternative premises could be found - this left the pre-school facing closure.

The community group was formed to try to buy the building at a discounted price. However, during negotiations the group felt the county council's proposals for the sale of the freehold were too complex and restrictive.

Its members felt that this left them at a disadvantage because they lacked the skills and knowledge to secure a fair deal.

The action

The group contacted the Compact Advocacy Programme for advice. Representatives of the programme then met with SRCC and researched its concerns. They concluded that Essex County Council had breached Section 3.2 of the Community Groups Code, which states that local authorities must recognise and support the importance of community ownership of assets.

The solution

SRCC proposed a 25-year clawback package, in which the repayments made on the purchase decreased by the year, and a rate of 1 per cent was accepted.

Concerns about subsidence mean that the two parties are still in negotiations over the price of the property.

"We didn't have the skills or knowledge for acquiring a community asset," says Sue Hawes, chairman of SRCC. "We realised we needed an advocate - someone who knew about negotiation. As a community group, we had no resources, and our unequal position was being exploited somewhat.

"Meeting with the Compact Advocacy Programme gave us the courage to make alternative arguments and achieve concessions."

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