Why Colchester Council really closed Abbots?

I’ve just got back from a meeting of Colchester Council’s Cabinet. 

Every single cabinet member – Lib Dem, Labour and Independent – voted to close Abbots Activity Centre.

In a packed meeting, which saw impassioned and deeply moving speeches from the elderly, vulnerable and community-minded, the cabinet came in for a lot of stick.

They entered to a wall of booing, and they were continually accused that their decision to close Abbots was a done deal.

And so it was. And Colchester’s only DDA-compliant activity centre will be axed.

But why?

The justification was the money. Abbots is subsidised to the tune of £70,000 per year.

But that argument doesn’t wash. For all that the cabinet members protested their budgets have been slashed, we know they’re pissing money away by bad management. If it only takes a simple FOI to discover they’re wasting tens of thousands on empty public toilets, imagine what other waste lies concealed in the massive wodges of paperwork at Borough Council HQ?

Also, I have no doubt that – with a concerted and enthusiastic campaign to promote Abbots, double it up as a community centre, and learn from the commercial acumen of other, profit-making activity centres – this is a resource that could treble its membership and clear a profit.

So, if it’s not the money, why are they really closing it?

Many of the Tory councillors who spoke raised the rumour that the Abbots building is wanted for social housing. Cllr Sonia Lewis – who has consistently backed Abbots for well over a decade – asked the portfolio member for housing, Labour councillor Tina Bourne, whether the rumour was true.

Councillor Bourne did not provide an answer.

But be sure to to drop her a line if – or  when – the sacrificed Abbots is used to help meet social housing targets. You read it here first.

Yet, once – just once – there was a glimmer of a kinder, more human outlook.

While every cabinet member played party politics, or pointed the finger at central government, or berated Tory councillors for standing up for Abbots (and suggested they were hypocrites), Councillor Martin Hunt took a different line.

He was going to vote to close Abbots, not because he didn’t value it, but because of TUPE.

In a nutshell (and this is my interpretation) TUPE would mean that Abbots’ staff would have their terms and conditions protected if the council sold Abbots to a private operator.

And, as I know from experience – one of my clients pulled out of a bid because of this – taking on public sector employees under TUPE is way too expensive.

Whatever the rights or wrongs of this, Councillor Hunt said that because of TUPE the centre had to be closed down – before it could become a community centre. 

He said he would argue for it to be restored as one, whatever his colleagues thought. And he gave his word on it.

I believe him. He’s one of the few councillors I would trust unconditionally. He’s a good man first, and a party man second – and I respect that.

But I don’t believe his cabinet colleagues.

So look out for some social housing in an ex-activity centre near you.

And please join Councillor Hunt in his campaign – whether you’re Tory, Lib Dem, Labour, or simply give a shit.

The councillors who voted to close Abbots:

 Portfolio responsibilities Cabinet member
1  Leader of the Council – Portfolio Holder for Strategy Councillor Anne Turrell (Lib Dem)
2  Business and Resources Councillor Paul Smith (Lib Dem)
 3  Communities and Leisure Services Councillor Annie Feltham (Lib Dem)
 4  Customers Councillor Beverley Oxford (Independent)
5  Housing Councillor Tina Bourne (Labour)
6  Regeneration Councillor Nick Barlow (Lib Dem)
7  Planning, Community Safety and Culture Councillor Tim Young (Labour)
8 Street and Waste Services (also Deputy Leader of the Council) Councillor Martin Hunt (Lib Dem)

 

2 Comments Why Colchester Council really closed Abbots?

  1. martin hunt

    Ben – I respect most of what you say, but I can’t agree with you over the toilets. The three under question are all integral parts of larger buildings so they can’t be demolished. It would cost about £15,000 each (my guess not an estimate) to reopen them and comply with all the latest health and safety instructions from Government. And let’s face it who wants to buy an ex-toilet block? The real fault is with whichever Government introduced a stupid rule that closed down toilets have to pay business rates!

    As far as TUPE is concerned my reading of it is that the council can transfer the building to another group to run but the staff have to be retained. The alternative is for the council to remove the staff and allow a community group to run the building for a similar use. To do that TUPE demands that the premises must close for 6 months. If the use is not similar that doesn’t need to happen. As I said I believe it should be used for community use and I will fight that corner in Cabinet.

    Reply
  2. Ben Locker

    Thanks Martin – appreciate the reply. In London I saw public toilets being put to all sorts of inventive uses, no doubt due to shortage of space. Whatever the madness of the rules, there must be a way of disposing of them, or altering them in such a way they don’t attract business rates. I wish the Council would look into it. We can’t carry on spending that kind of money, only to tell people that we’re going to cut services like Abbots.

    I think we’re talking about the same thing re TUPE. But if you’re fighting to keep it in community use, I’m with you. Let’s talk – I’d be happy to help return it as a community centre, and to do what I could to promote it enough to become self sustaining.

    Kindest,

    Ben

    Reply

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