By Xindi Wei
A community centre with the biggest legal advice team in the UK is petitioning against a potential £45,000-a-year rent rise imposed by town hall chiefs.
Waterloo Action Centre (WAC), in Bayliss Road on the South Bank, would also see an extra £5,000 insurance over a four-year period – it currently pays out only a peppercorn rent.
Scores of other community hubs are also likely to face drastic cost increases as a result of a review by town hall chiefs trying to plug a massive pandemic cash shortfall.
The WAC petition came after Lambeth council announced plans to raise rents for voluntary groups on council-owned property, standardising rates paid to ensure a “fair and transparent” system.
The proposed rent would be a third of WAC’s income and would force it to cut some activities and services it provides, hitting some of their most vulnerable clients.
In normal times, the community centre has over 30,000 users a year on an average of 87.5 hours a week for community purposes such as dance, other physical activities, arts and crafts, a computer room for public use as well as family parties.
The centre also hosts Waterloo Legal advice service, which helps 85-90 individuals or families in its weekly session.
“The proposed rent is nearly a third of our income – so we couldn’t subsidise advice and activities for older people if we were paying that,” said Penny Savage.
“Unless we charged other users a lot more – but then that would be squeezing many of those users out and yet the NHS needs everyone to be staying fit.”
Formed by the community to take over a derelict building, WAC remains accountable to the community and has had a lease since 1973.
It has raised over £1 million over the years to bring parts of the building back into use, as well as getting enormously valuable gifts of labour and building materials from major construction companies, local residents and businesses. There also claims if it is put on a 10-year lease it will not be able to receive grants for building repairs – projects need at least 25-year leases to qualify. So Lambeth may instead have to pay for their upkeep.
Ellen Lebethe, chair of Lambeth Pensioners Action Group(LAMPAG) said: ”WAC has 49 years of providing a range of services which have enhanced the physical and mental health of members of the community, especially of older and disabled people.
“It has also been an essential arena for people to socialise, learn new skills, for peer support, for getting relevant advice and important information.”
Lebethe also stresses that “any review of leases take into account the people involved” as well as the “benefits and impacts” groups make to their communities through their ongoing activities and actions.
“We are concerned that a consultation about community centres is being conducted under lockdown and where many people face being excluded from the process because they do not have access to IT,” added Lebethe.
“A ten-year lease and the proposed rent will weigh heavily on funding for long-term commitments. This is especially true in the present climate of constraints on incomes from all corners and at all levels.”
Consultation ends on April 25 – but WAC’s volunteers and staff want the consultation to continue after May 17, when community centres will be allowed to re-open.
Peter Lane, a former chairman of Lambeth’s planning committee when the centre opened, said: “I was horrified to hear of the proposed lease changes.
“The community has brilliantly kept its side of the agreement. WAC is truly diverse, both in activities and users. It is truly a People’s Place.
“The public highly values WAC – so should the council. It was their enlightened action then which got this whole partnership enterprise started. It remains very much needed today.”
Lambeth Council used to support advice services, including running costs for WLAS, and the older people’s activities.
Lambeth Finance and Property is reviewing the short- and medium-term leases of community organisations based in Council property. The council has not been published by the list of organisations being considered in this review.
A Lambeth council spokesperson said: “The council’s proposed Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) Asset Strategy, which is currently the subject of a public consultation, seeks to support and enhance the work of all VCS groups within the borough, by providing them with a consistent, fair and transparent platform and basis for occupying Council-owned properties.
“Under the proposals, all VCS tenants will be granted consistent lease terms of up to 10 years, on a low and subsidised rent, allowing them to focus on delivering social value to residents.
“The council proposes that Waterloo Action Centre will, after a period of transition, pay a rent that reflects an 80 per cent rental subsidy from the council.”
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