St Martin’s Community Centre opens in Allenton, Derby - an article by Kevin Curley, Chair of Community Action Derby
It’s especially tough for Derby’s voluntary sector leaders right now. The Clinical Commissioning Group has given notice that it intends to cut all grants to voluntary organisations from November. If we cannot persuade them otherwise the sector will lose around £300,000 each year. As chair of Community Action Derby I was feeling quite down hearted by this situation when I went to visit Pastor Mairi Radcliffe at St Martin’s Community Centre with Carl Willis, Community Development Manager for Derby City Council. I left two hours later inspired by what the leaders of this community project have achieved and certain that it contains lessons for anyone struggling to open or rehabilitate a community centre.
Most community centre news in England these days is about closures. We don’t know exactly how many centres have gone because nobody collects this information since Community Matters closed down in 2016. We can be certain though that as a result of cuts forced on local authorities thousands of urban communities have now lost the buildings that provided countless meeting, activity and training spaces. Many services including parent and toddler groups, lunch clubs for old people, welfare rights advice and youth and sports clubs have gone, often from the most disadvantaged parts of our cities and towns.
St Martin’s Church and Community Centre serves 5,000 people in the Derby suburb of Allenton. It’s located in Boulton, one of England’s 20% most deprived wards. The church was built in 1973 adjoining the original 1930s building which became the church hall. The hall provided a base for a small number of community groups’ activities but had become very tired in recent years. Things began to look up when Allenton received ‘Big Local’ funding from the Big Lottery Fund in 2012, bringing £1 million over ten years for projects chosen by local people. Working with Big Local and Derby Homes, the city’s ‘arms length management organisation’ for social housing, the church worked up a plan to convert the ageing church hall to a modern community centre. There would be new community rooms with good facilities for local groups to meet and hold events, a community café with a training kitchen for adults with special needs, a sensory garden boasting ‘plot to plate’ initiatives and outdoor play for preschool children. The main hall would be refurbished to host local theatre, youth clubs, toddler groups, dance sessions and big community events. New toilets and facilities for disabled people would be available to local shoppers. Every aspect of this bold vision was being put in place by the time of my visit. As Mairi Radcliffe put it ‘the community centre will be a place of radical hospitality and extravagant generosity’.
Derby City Council has confirmed that the commercial value of the work carried out at the centre so far is £1 million. Remarkably, the budget for the project was £196,000, funded mostly by Allenton Big Local and the Methodist Church. Derby Homes has mobilised many of its contractors to carry out work voluntarily or at cost. JA Roofing put a new roof worth £80,000 on an extension for £35,000. Kensington Windows provided new windows worth £70,000 for £15,000. Redesign Architects provided pro bono services as did Bell Group which decorated the centre for nothing used paint donated by Johnsons. On the day of my visit four church volunteers were cleaning donated chairs. The café – which would fit well on the smartest high street – has been furnished to a very high standard without cost. The down side, as Radcliffe points out, is that ‘project management is extremely difficult. When doing work for nothing or at cost contractors understandably fit it in when they can and that sometimes means a long wait’.
What about future sustainability? Room bookings and café use already suggest that the centre will be able to generate its own running costs. Energy costs have been reduced by installing new windows, insulation and more efficient lighting and heating. With a much enhanced profile in the community and increased usage Willis is certain it will be easier to attract grants.
What are the lessons for other communities? Radcliffe says there are under used church buildings in many areas. Councils and social housing providers need to be prepared to work with faith groups and to invest time and money in their buildings, subject to safeguards about inclusive use over the long term. Church buildings offer future sustainability and often have access to large volunteer bases through their congregations. As Willis points out ‘the community centres of the past were church halls and I believe they will be the sustainable centres of the future’.
This centre has come out of a strong partnership between church, social housing provider and local authority. Willis again: ‘You need people who are committed long term and are prepared to give more than just what they are employed to do. You need a vision and an army of backers – especially volunteers and contractors. You need synergy – the right people, at the right time in the right place’. I’d love to clone Radcliffe and Willis, whose energy and persistence over three years has brought this magnificent project to fruition. I’m hoping to persuade them to put on master classes in community centre development. If they do, book quickly and come along to Allenton to learn how to apply their approach in your community.