The threatened Council take-over of a Leicester community centre illustrates the contradictions in the government’s ‘community cohesion’ agenda.
The withdrawal of funds from the hugely successful Highfields Youth and Community Centre (HYCC), in inner-city Leicester, has become the focus for a strong local campaign aimed at challenging the whole approach of the City Council and raising questions about the meaning of community.
Based in part of the town where half of the mainly Black and Minority Ethnic population live on less than £5,000 a year, HYCC has been described by the Timothy Consultancy as one of ‘the best [community centres] in the UK’ with real roots in the life of the local area. The centre has been successful in obtaining funds from a variety of agencies, including the Learning and Skills Council and National Lottery, to extend the building and recruit workers. But Leicester City Council’s education and lifelong learning department has blocked current funding and withdrawn its support for the project as part of a general review of education in the city. The departmental ‘review’, opposed by many councillors, has been ordered by the Council Cabinet and is perceived by supporters of HYCC as an attempt to undermine its independence. In the past, HYCC has been an important outpost of anti-racism in Leicester and was, when necessary, unafraid of making criticisms of the local authority.
Priya Thamotheram, manager of HYCC for over twenty years, is widely respected in Leicester for his work in bringing the various local communities together and supporting their development, including the new refugee and asylum seeking communities that have arrived in Leicester over the last few years. The centre has also been a venue for national anti-racist events, such as conferences organised by the National Civil Rights Movement.
Priya has now been effectively sacked from his job and the other staff at HYCC face being replaced by council employees, largely based elsewhere, a move which would not only undermine the local knowledge and experience acquired by the current team but also strip away the independence that has been crucial to HYCC’s success.
A newly established group, the Highfields Users’ Campaign, has organised a series of events to defend the community centre, including a public meeting attracting over 130 people and a demonstration in support of the existing team at HYCC, held in the Highfields area on 25 September 2004. A survey of local residents and users found that 97 per cent of the 419 people questioned believed that HYCC should continue to be managed by the current staff and volunteers rather than be taken over by a team of city council officials.
NATFHE, the trade union for workers in post-16 education, supports the campaign. Russ Escritt of NATFHE said: ‘Our members in Leicester have been extremely proud to have worked in a service that was a model around the country. We believe that the council is breaking the Race Relations (Amendment) Act as it did not assess the differential impact on users and staff of this policy change. We’ve referred the matter to the Commission for Racial Equality.’
While the Council’s ‘review’ drags on, the brand new computers in HYCC’s state-of-the-art IT room have never been switched on for lack of support staff. Likewise, the new film and video editing suite, the music recording studio and the sports hall are all unused. In the surrounding neighbourhood, the need for access to these kinds of resources is desperate but wranglings over the independence of the centre mean that the £4.5m building is unfinished and the staff that were to be funded cannot now be recruited.
Behind the dispute over HYCC lies the question of what ‘community cohesion’ means. HYCC has effectively been pioneering ‘community cohesion’ long before the phrase was invented, running projects that brought together young people from different communities and resolving conflicts as they arose. What makes its approach stand out is its emphasis on empowerment and the fact that it is regarded as an honest broker by local people. At the same time that the future of this work has been put in jeopardy, the City Council has launched a new £700,000 funding stream for its own version of community cohesion. Projects supported include a series of events on ‘intercultural understanding’ with accompanying DVD, a ‘living together in harmony’ project in which young people from different parts of town will be brought together, and the production of a series of video documentaries examining the relationships between the different cultures in Leicester.
The Highfields Users’ Campaign believes that the difference between the two perspectives lies in who has a say. Speaking for the campaign, Matt Follett told IRR News: ‘When you talk about community cohesion, you talk about either patronage or empowerment. Those in power can make money available. But it is an entirely different thing to give communities a say in how that money is used. The lesson of the last twenty years is that you cannot create community cohesion by imposing it.’
Leicester has often been hailed as a beacon of good community relations. What is ignored, argues Matt Follett, is the extent to which organisations like HYCC have been essential to this. But because HYCC is seen by the City Council as a ‘site of resistance’, its work is now under threat.
The Campaign believes that Leicester’s poorest communities, particularly its Black and Minority Ethnic members, have no real voice which means that, in the name of community cohesion, cutbacks to their services can be introduced without significant political cost for council leaders. There is also the perception, in some quarters, that cohesion requires a shift away from services aimed specifically at Black and Minority Ethnic communities. City Council cutbacks on voluntary organisations in Leicester have also targeted an African-Caribbean women’s project, a South Asian community centre and a Chinese community centre.
Unfortunately, no-one from Leicester City Council was available to comment on these allegations.
The Highfields Users’ Campaign recognises that Leicester’s struggle to protect a truly community-based project resonates with similar fights across the UK. In Bradford, the council recently decided to completely scrap the community development and lifelong learning service which is dedicated to supporting the city’s most deprived wards. Nineteen community centres, which are supported or funded by the council, are under threat, along with up to seventy-three jobs. At the same time, large sums of money are being spent on ‘Spice’, a combined shopping, restaurant and educational complex to be built in the centre of Bradford, around the theme of ‘spices, herbs and aromatics’. The aim is to use curry as a vehicle to restore the city’s civic pride and encourage community cohesion. But it is a project conceived and designed by marketing departments and council boardrooms rather than by Bradford’s communities themselves.
The final decision on the future of the existing team at Highfields Youth and Community Centre will be reached in the next two months.