Axes hangs over landmark 'Big Society' centre

Mar 8 2011 - 3:57pm

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By Allister Hayman on 23 February, 2011

When David Cameron relaunched his Big Society initiative last week he conceded there was nothing new about the idea - and nowhere is this more evident than at the Selby Centre in Tottenham, north London.

The centre, established in 1992 by the local community, is run by the Selby Trust charity and is located in one of the most deprived and ethnically diverse wards in the country. It is a multi-purpose facility, offering offices, meeting rooms, training facilities as well as sports halls and events spaces to local community groups and social enterprises.

Sona Mahtani, Selby Trust chief executive, says some 1,500 people pass through the centre each day. She says it currently houses more than 100 social enterprises, employing around 400 people, as well as housing associations and other community and voluntary groups. It provides community services including a crèche, a sound studio, a supplementary school and a playgroup.

“We are in a poor and a very diverse area - the centre is a hub for the community and is hugely valued,” she says.

The organisations at the Selby Centre read like a checklist of the government’s Big Society agenda: a group that provides citizenship and employability training for the local Somali community; social care providers for vulnerable people; training organisations aimed at helping ex-offenders, young people without work, the long-term unemployed; and job support agencies working with those who are hardest to reach. There is also a developing plan for a free school.

If the Big Society already exists, as Mr Cameron says, surely there can be no better example than what is going on in these former school buildings, which the council closed in the eighties and the community took on as their own asset? Indeed, as equalities minister Lynne Featherstone (Lib Dem) said after a recent visit, the Selby Centre is “an amazing model” of the Big Society in action.

But now the centre’s future is in doubt. Ms Mahtani says the Selby Centre is around 70% self-sufficient, generating income through the discounted rents paid by the organisations that use its facilities. But the Selby Trust does rely on a “circular grant” of £163,000 from Haringey LBC that covers the rent of the complex, which the council may now terminate.

Meanwhile many of the organisations housed there depend in part on other funding, such as Supporting People, which is being cut, and the Future Jobs Fund, which has been scrapped. If they can’t source other funding, Ms Mahtani says that will effect the sustainability of the Selby Centre itself.

She is enthusiastic about the Big Society Bank, but recognises that few if any of the organisations at the centre will be able to afford its commercial rates. She hopes some may get support through the government’s transition fund, though recognises competition will be fierce.

“Ultimately, if this centre was to close the social cost to the community would be huge - and that would end up being a cost to government,” she says.

This is precisely the sort of things that Mr Cameron wants to avoid. Last week he said the Big Society was not just something for “leafy” well-to-do areas, but part of the government’s strategy to tackle social breakdown. He said the Big Society can work in deprived areas too as it is about communities stepping forward and taking action to help themselves.

Ms Mahatani agrees. She says the Selby Centre is an anchor that helps hold a diverse and disadvantaged community together. But she says that it doesn’t come out of nothing and that without nurturing and some support, it could easily disappear. Mr Cameron said the Big Society was his “absolute passion”. A day at the Selby Centre might help him see both the potential of his ‘big idea’ - and the very real threats it is now facing.

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