By News Reporters
Fitzrovia has a thriving voluntary sector but it is threatened by a lack of new people to continue the work of an increasingly older generation of volunteers, cuts to funding, rising costs, and a town hall that considers residents a nuisance, according to some of the speakers at an event on Monday evening.
Billed as “What’s going on in Fitzrovia?” it was chaired by councillor Adam Harrison and took place at the new Fitzrovia Community Centre in Foley Street.
Nine representatives from Fitzrovia’s community organisations each gave a presentation about their work and what opportunities and challenges they face in the future, and Camden’s Bloomsbury ward councillors were questioned about support for community groups and funding.
Andre Schott explained what Fitzrovia Youth in Action does to help young people, about organised football tournaments, and how they were working to get the business community more involved in supporting local youth. He said it was important for local businesses to help young people into work.
In answer to a question from Fitzrovia News about funding of the charity he replied that they currently receive half their funding from Camden but that the rest is from other grants which have to be applied for.
“It is a big worry for us like many voluntary organisations,” said Mr Schott. “The real challenge is to cover the running costs of the organisation. Most funders like to see about 15 percent of their grant going towards the running costs. But the reality is it probably costs about 30 percent,” he said.
Helena Roden commented that it seemed very much “boy orientated”. She asked what was being done “to encourage more girls activities”?
Mr Schott responded by saying that many of their activities have 50 percent or more girls taking part.
He was asked about girls football. He replied saying that it was difficult to arrange girls football and participation is often very low.
Clive Henderson speaking on behalf of the Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Association told the meeting how the organisation was formed nearly 40 years ago and how it provides facilities for other groups in Fitzrovia to use. He said they were very sorry to be having to leave the Neighbourhood Centre at 39 Tottenham Street but were shortly to move to new premises.
Barb Jacobson commented that a very important part of the Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Association’s work was providing housing and welfare advice. She also spoke about the work she does with supporting older people in Fitzrovia which is mostly funded by a Big Lottery grant.
Andre Schott asked about the impact of the housing and welfare benefit changes and how it is affecting people living in Fitzrovia.
Ms Jacobson replied that the housing benefit changes were having a huge effect already, “never mind the changes that are coming in April”. This is made worse by rising private housing rents in the last year. In her opinion the welfare changes are “vicious and sadistic”. She said much of her work was taken up by trying to keep people living in the area rather than being forced out by either rising rents or benefit cuts.
Max Neufeld of the Charlotte Street Association described how battles over planning and licensing in Fitzrovia were increasingly being lost to property developers and commercial users because those in Camden Town Hall saw Fitzrovia as “a commercial area and where residents are a nuisance”. In his opinion there was too close a relationship between Camden’s planning officers and some landowners.
He said their work has been made harder because complex planning application documents often running to hundreds of pages are only available online through a computer screen.
His comments about difficulty of accessing planning applications were echoed by one resident who said that Camden was not even allowing residents to look at paper plans in the Town Hall. Instead they were being directed to a computer screen.
There were also discussion about proposals to change the way delegated planning decisions are taken. It was reported that Camden’s development control users panel were told that delegated applications (which make up 95 percent of applications) would only go forward to a members’ briefing panel if a Conservation Area Advisory Committee objected, or if there were at least three objections.
Bettina Ratcliffe introduced herself as an ambassador for the Fitzrovia Community Centre. She said it opened last year and was a “fledgling organisation” but already proving itself. Between May and November 2012 it received more than 1,500 visitors, and people were participating in a range of activities including fitness classes. The West End Children’s Centre also runs sessions at the Community Centre, receiving funding from Westminster City Council. She described the aspirations of the Community Centre, the trustees desire to achieve “strong governance”, and to be an “inclusive community for both local people and the business community”.
She stated that they want “community ownership of the Centre” and are encouraging activities “organised by Fitzrovians for Fitzrovians”. But she stressed there are limits: “We can’t do everything and sometimes we have to make some tough and unpalatable decisions, bearing in mind the climate in which we operate”.
She announced that they intend to “carry out a comprehensive assessment of the needs of the area”. They will present “a collaborative research and development project to Westminster University and local businesses who may help to contribute financially and offer volunteers”, to enable the Community Centre to identify local priorities.
She was asked by Max Neufeld of the Charlotte Street Association as to what was being done to meet the needs of Fitzrovia’s long-standing community organisations.
“Charlotte Street Association and Friends of the Parks are going to become homeless when the Neighbourhood Centre at 39 Tottenham Street ceases to exist. Are you making the Centre available to groups such as us?” asked Neufeld.
Ms Ratcliffe replied saying it was “a question only Edward Turner the chair of the Fitzrovia Community Centre could answer.” Mr Turner was not at the meeting.
Ms Ratcliffe was also asked when the Community Centre trustees were going to hold an annual general meeting to report back to the wider community. Ms Ratcliffe said the meeting was held the previous week but that it was not a public meeting.
Later in the meeting others questioned why the Community Centre was not doing more to support community groups especially when it was receiving funding from Camden Council.
The Fitzrovia Community Centre was built to replace the older Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Centre which will shortly be sold by Camden Council. Sue Blundell reported that the Fitzrovia Trust is hoping to buy the building that contains the Neighbourhood Centre and housing, and refurbish it and bring it back into use.
Alex Jan asked why so many community groups were not pooling their resources. He suggested that the Fitzrovia Community Centre “was built for a purpose and was the natural place where other organisations could make use of these facilities.”
The Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Association had announced in January that it was not taking space at the Fitzrovia Community Centre because what was offered was too small and too expensive. The Association is instead moving to offices owned by a private landlord.
The councillors were told that community groups need meeting space, access to a computer and a printer and photocopier, all of which have been provided for free at the Neighbourhood Centre.
Currently the Fitzrovia Community Centre has a list of charges for room hire but it is not offering use of computers, printers, a photocopier or access to the Internet.
Councillor Milena Nuti said that questions about the use of the Community Centre are “coming very strongly out of the meeting.” She stated: “There are conditions attached to Camden-funded community centres and officers will be very interested to hear what the perceived needs of the community are and to what extent that the Community Centre is fulfilling those needs. That is something we can take up.” She said details of the grant were on the council’s website.
According to Camden Council’s website a grant of £135,000 was awarded to the Fitzrovia Community Centre Ltd, Foley Street, London W1, from the Council’s Community Centres Fund Investment Portfolio 2012-2015.
Privately people told Fitzrovia News that they were very impressed with the Community Centre as a building. It has lots of space — 670 square metres with full access for people with disabilities on the ground floor. It is ten times the size of the Neighbourhood Centre in Tottenham Street which has only 65 square metres of space and poor access for people with disabilities. One person commented that the new Community Centre was an attractive building, but that it looked very “corporate” and that its hire charges were a barrier to people using it.
Working together was a theme continued by Nick Bailey who was speaking on behalf of the Fitzrovia Forum. He stressed the importance of removing “the Berlin Wall” that divides Fitzrovia between Camden and Westminster. Under the Localism Act areas like Fitzrovia could develop their own neighbourhood plans and overcome the problems of cross-boundary issues that are often exacerbated by party politics. One example of this is where Camden had introduced a 20 miles per hour speed limit while Westminster is sticking to 30 miles per hour. Depending where you are on Goodge Street there is a different speed limit.
There were also presentations by Julian Morant acting headteacher of All Souls Church of England Primary School in Foley Street, Mike Pentelow editor Fitzrovia News, and Helena Roden of the West End Women’s Institute.
“What’s going on in Fitzrovia?” was held at Fitzrovia Community Centre, 2 Foley Street, W1W 6DL on Monday 25 February and was organised by Bloomsbury ward councillors Adam Harrison, Milena Nuti and Abdul Quadir; one of series of regular meetings where residents can question councillors and discuss issues of local concern. See wearecamden.org/bloomsbury for more information.