PROTEST: Demonstrators outside the Chestnuts Community Centre last year over fears Haringey Council wanted to shut the centre
BLACK-OWNED community centres providing vital services to African and African Caribbean people are facing uncertain futures without urgent government support, a new report has warned.
A Place to Call Home reveals the scale of the challenge facing African diaspora communities across England in retaining places to meet, provide support, work, learn, celebrate and mourn.
Many of these spaces were created directly out of uprisings in Toxteth, Brixton, Bristol and Tottenham in the 1980s and played a major role in improving race equality.
But as those leases come to an end, local authorities appear reluctant to renew them – a trend that has developed over the past five to 10 years.
The Ubele Initiative which led the study, funded by Locality, says it is crucial that ethnic minority communities are given vital assistance to take over and run community buildings to ensure they can meet the needs of future generations.
Tony Armstrong, Locality’s chief executive, said the report “underlines the uncertain future of community buildings primarily used by BAME groups and stresses the struggles and losses that many have faced in recent years”.
He added: “The government needs to act to ensure BAME groups are supported to take on and retain the important community assets which mean they can make a difference to the people in their neighbourhoods.”
A Place To Call Home forms the first phase of Project Mali and provides an important overview of asset ownership within the African diaspora community. It is the first report of its kind.
One of the biggest findings was that black-owned spaces were increasingly vulnerable to being lost forever without intervention.
It also underlined a failure to build on the Windrush Generation’s struggle for social justice and equality in post-war Britain by protecting important meeting places.
This was particularly concerning for the ageing population who relied on community centres for social spaces or to access vital meal services.
Data was captured from a total of 150 organisations across England and 54 per cent of respondents said the future of their community buildings was ‘insecure’.
Yvonne Field, Ubele’s chief executive, said: “There is an urgent need for a more joined up or holistic strategy to help save and restore iconic community centres and buildings. We need to bring together key national, regional and local stakeholders with BAME communities with assets in need of development.”
Field added that part of securing future success is ensuring the older generation can hand over to an up-skilled younger generation who can become the next leaders.
Ubele and Locality are now lobbying central and local government to ensure BAME communities are proactively identified and supported to use their rights under the Localism Act, as well as other measures, to take over the ownership or management of important community assets in their area.
The report also recommends that BAME organisations are outfitted with the requisite skills to ensure they are in a position to bid or take over land or buildings for community use.
Historian and community champion Patrick Vernon OBE, who wrote the forward to A Place to Call Home, said: “Without community buildings and assets (including nightclubs, record shops, restaurants, bookshops, general retail outlets and social housing) we will have limited foundations or basis to build and support a strong network of self-sustaining, independent and financially viable organisations.”
‘WE'RE LOSING OUR MEETING PLACES AND THIS MUST STOP'
Community buildings – places for people to meet, support, work, learn, celebrate and mourn – are the cornerstones of our neighbourhoods.
They are the essential bricks and mortar which hold our communities together.
But increasingly they are slipping through our fingers.
On the first day of this year’s Black History Month, with funding from Locality, the national network of ambitious and enterprising community organisations, the Ubele Initiative has published a report exploring the changes in community asset ownership within the African diaspora.
The conversation emerging from the community was that we were losing our assets at an alarming rate yet no one seemed to have any substantial evidence of what was happening and, more importantly, why.
Several examples were recounted including the loss of the Africa Centre in Covent Garden, the Welbourne Centre in Tottenham and the CentrePoint bookshop in Dalston. All of these losses evoked high emotion throughout the community but local campaigns and community debates seemed to have little effect in actually stopping any of these losses.
We interviewed the people behind African diaspora-led community projects and gathered community leadership stories.
We mapped 150 different community spaces. We know from the information we have gathered that many community buildings which have managed to keep their doors open are in trouble; more than half of our respondents said the future of their community buildings was ‘insecure’.
Increasing pressure on local council budgets, local ‘development plans’ in partnership with private developers and changing demographics, has led to struggling African diaspora community centres either being closed, transferred to other organisations, sold off or razed to the ground.
Once lost, it is almost impossible to secure comparable alternative spaces. Although these changes have affected the whole of society, BAME groups and communities tend to be worst affected.
Our report, A Place to Call Home, sheds light on weaknesses in current national and local policies and programmes which, in some case, have exacerbated inequalities.
We are calling on government and national agencies to sit up and take notice of what is happening so we can create more inclusive systems and processes – a more level playing field.
We need to support African diaspora groups and other BAME–led organisations to understand and engage with the powers available to them through the Localism Act so they can secure the future of their community buildings.
Our report is a wake-up call for everyone who values diversity in our society.
We need the community buildings. We need the night clubs, record shops, restaurants and bookshops that will really give black communities all over the country a real chance to build and support self-sustaining vibrant and financially strong organisations.
* Yvonne Field is the founder and CEO of the Ubele Initiative