Communities step up to fill gaps as councils scale back

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AS councils look to save money and take difficult decisions about the future of services there is an increasing focus on what communities can do for themselves.

Ministers have expressed enthusiasm for community-run services and there are already several in Yorkshire, including Bramley Baths.

Previously run by Leeds City Council, control of the baths was passed over to the Friends of Bramley Baths in December on a 25-year lease.

Friends’ chairman John Battle, the former Leeds West MP and Leeds councillor, says he passionately believes there is the talent in neighbourhoods to run services.

But he is also wary of councils indulging in what he calls “asset dumping”.

“You could have a council with a library it can’t keep going and thinks maybe people could run their own library but without any money and resources. It won’t work. It can’t be sustainable,” he said.

Mr Battle stresses that while the community has led the initiative to save Bramley Baths, it is being run as a commercial enterprise with charges for users and qualified staff employed to run it day-to-day.

He argues that efforts to save services focus too much on buildings and not enough on supporting the people who might become involved develop the right skills.

And he believes councils must retain a role in the system. “It needs to be there as a back stop. There is a danger if services are decentralised and fragmented people will fall through the gaps.

“Not everyone can set up a free school; that’s why we have public facilities.”

The community of Stocksbridge is currently contesting the decision by Sheffield City Council to withdraw its annual subsidy for its leisure centre which will trigger its closure.

If it cannot persuade the council to change its mind, campaigners are contemplating how they might take over its management.

“It’s not something where you wake up in the morning and think ‘I’m going to run a leisure centre today’,” admits campaign chairman Emma Gregory.

“Within the group we have got lots of skilled professional people and we feel as a community we can do it. It would be a learning curve but there is a lot of other places where they have managed it.

“It has taken a lot of effort and dedication for all the members – I have a family and my own business – but we just haven’t questioned it.”

However, she is not as sure that all communities would respond in the same ways as Stocksbridge.

“I have lived here all my life and my family have been here for generations,” she said.

“I think in other areas it would depend on the community and whether a particular service was valued.”