27 June 2013

Begging at the Gates of The Manor

Two weeks ago today a hastily convened public meeting was held at Aldridge Manor House Youth Centre to discuss the future of youth services in Aldridge following the equally hasty announcement that such provision was in the future, to be made from the back of vans or unused shops. By the end of what was an uncomfortable meeting for the Councillors and Officers present, it was agreed that a further public meeting would be held in the near future, that the meeting would be given wider and better publicity than the one that had taken place and that the minutes of the meeting would be made available to the community.

It saddens and angers me that at the time of writing no further meeting has yet been arranged and minutes have not been published. What has been published is this. A question and answer and action log. Posted on the web site today. It's taken a while!

The log is unfortunately not an accurate reflection of what happened at the meeting nor of the questions asked. Without going into an overlong analysis I'll just give two examples. Question 16. There was a question of this nature but the senior member of the community that asked the question was pointing out the loss of facilities to local elderly people who had used the offices formerly based at the side of the Manor House and now demolished, for internet use and other group meetings and those facilities had never been replaced. The point the questioner was making was that facilities had already been lost and had not been replaced. There were no questions about anti-social behaviour, just statements of concern.

Question 20 was never asked. What is behind this inclusion as a question is the proposal of Councillor Rochelle to give the local parish church several hundred thousand pounds to make up the current shortfall in the fund to build new church rooms. We should remember that when the new church rooms are built, the current rectory will be demolished, land sold and there is planning permission for several houses to be built on the land surrounding the current house. Work will be starting within the next month. Coincidence I'm sure!

The log does not reflect in any way the contributions made by two young people at the meeting who apparently had had their views ignored in previous consultation with the users of the Manor House. Seems that their views are still being ignored.

I may be wrong, or it could be because it was difficult to hear speakers at certain times during the meeting but I do not recall that at any time during the meeting  it was said that there would be centre based youth provision in Aldridge. The statement regarding a permanent base came later when Councillor A Andrew and I discussed the subject on BBC WM.

So the 'log' is not be trusted.

Since the meeting I have tweeted @WalsallCouncil on four separate days asking when the date will be fixed.

  • On 17 June they were 'discussing the date now'
  • On 21 June there is 'a meeting today' to discuss a date
  • On 25 June the date will be 'fixed in the next few days'
  • Today, 27 June 'still sorting out a date' 
This meeting is not for fixing thus far and one has to ask why? A little clue is contained within the log on the penultimate page under unanswered question from  meeting. No impact assessment on the impact of the closure of youth services at The Manor House has been carried out! Surely not! This explains why the first public meeting was arranged completely out of the blue and so hastily. Naughty Walsall Council may have been breaking the rules regarding public consultation and impact assessments and now they've been caught out, they're dragging the suddenly extended so called consultation period out, hoping that we'll forget the historic building in our midst and the youth club run from it.

I was surprised to discover at the meeting that apparently the Youth Club is promoted in local schools. Little of what goes on passes my daughter by so I asked her about this and she reported that she had never seen publicity for the youth club at school. I've never seen any publicity for the Manor House and regular week day youth provision (as opposed to holiday provision) in Aldridge and this leads me to something I said during the meeting. It seems to me that this youth club has been allowed to gradually decline, quite deliberately in order that it could be closed due to lack of interest. The reduction in the numbers of young people using the facility, not from the heydays of the 1970s and 1980s but in more recent years has been kept quiet. If they don't know it's there then how can they come and if they don't come, how can they miss it when it's gone?

Something smells fishy but the pond in front of the Manor House was filled in years ago......

13 June 2013

Costs and Values: Confusion at The Manor

They weren't expecting many to turn out for the public meeting at Aldridge Manor House this evening, set up in haste to discuss the future of youth provision in the area. Chairs in a circle and no mic, even though there's  a perfectly good pa system installed. Despite the lack of publicity and the indecent short notice, people came. I'm not good on numbers unless I count and I didn't but I would say about  50 of all ages from the young to the old.

The two Councillors John Murray and John Rochelle from Aldridge Central and South were there as was the Deputy Leader of the Council, Adrian Andrew. It was good to see two Councillors from outside the ward; Gareth Illmann-Walker and Barbara Cassidy. Notable in absence were the two Councillors from Aldridge North and Walsall Wood who were not on their honeymoon, Harris and Sears.

I'm not sure what to say about what happened at the meeting as much of it was inaudible but the buzz words were 'building not fit for purpose'. This was the stock answer to most questions. Apparently youth leaders spend far too much time arranging maintenance rather than providing a youth service. If I was hoping that I would get answers to all the questions I had then I was to be disappointed but I think the gist is that

  • there was an impact assessment with regards to the building but there hasn't been one on the impact on withdrawing from using a permanent base for youth work in Aldridge
  • there are few if any suitable buildings in Aldridge for a permanent base and they're having difficulties in finding suitable bases for pop-ups too
  • there are talks with Aston Manor Transport Museum for using their premises as a base for automotive courses currently run from the Manor
  • the current building is not fit for purpose
  • there are no restrictive covenants within the title deeds of the building and ownership has not been registered with Land Registry.
  • The building is not yet on the market and has not been sold
  • A new build centre is not a possibility
In 2011 it was thought the sale of the Manor House would raise £1 million. Proceeds would be reinvested in the council's capital programme. It would not be earmarked specifically for Aldridge. The sale would produce revenue savings of £18,000 a year, less than a Cabinet member's current allowance. I think the nub of everything going on here is about the sale proceeds.

The meeting got a little heated at times, there was passion. What was clear to me was the impression that the meeting was only supposed to be for parents of those whose children attend the centre. There appears to be no desire to engage the wider community despite the fact that the provision of youth services affects the whole community as the older people who attended pointed out and will affect everyone in Walsall if the council can get away with their plans for Aldridge.

Cllr Rochelle suggested that part of the proceeds from the sale of the Manor House could be given to the parish church to aid the building of their new rooms in exchange for the use of the rooms for youth provision. No thanks Councillor.

There was no desire by the council for a further public meeting, they would have preferred to go on towards planning future provision. This is all well and good and yes planning should go ahead however there was little publicity for the meeting this evening and many people in the local community were unaware that it was taking place. Furthermore we as a community should be allowed to question what has happened up to this point, whether actions taken on our behalf are fulfilling all legal criteria, what should happen to a well loved community building and hold our local councillors to account for decisions they play a part in making on our behalf. A further public meeting to discuss these issues will be held sometime in July. Hopefully this will be given better publicity than the one tonight.

I'm still not sure what is happening, whether there will be a permanent base for youth services in Aldridge or not. There were very mixed messages this evening. The meeting was confused and confusing apart from the young people who turned up and spoke with the passion that is part of youth. They did their generation proud.

To think we may lose the place where they meet, relax, plan, learn and are cared for, all for £18,000 a year.

6 June 2013

Crime Wave against Youth hits Aldridge - 'village' devastated' by consequences

I've wondered over the last few days whether or not a public meeting regarding the future of youth services in Aldridge would have been organised had there not been a fuss made on social media and by local bloggers. People such as Brownhills Bob, The Plastic Hippo and The Mushroom  as well as myself, raised the profile of the issue so much that even The Express and Star managed an article!  I've also thought about why there is such short notice for the meeting taking into account that the changes have been planned for over two years.

The public meeting will be held at The Manor House Youth Centre, Little Aston Road, Aldridge, next Thursday 13th June 6-8 pm. I urge anyone interested in the youth service as it is now and how it might be in the future to attend this meeting. There are many questions that need answering.

It was 6th April 2011 that Walsall Council announced the sale of The Manor House in Aldridge. The house is one of the few historic buildings left in Aldridge, it has a fascinating history, is Grade 2 listed and lies within a Conservation Area. For many years now, back to the 1960s it has been the home of the local youth service. I've written about how I feel about the service that has been given to the community by many dedicated youth workers before and will not go into that again. What does need to be covered however is the behaviour of Walsall Council and our local councillors in the last few years.

It's worth returning to my FOI request made on 10th May 2011. It was very simple. 

"On 6th April 2011, the council announced the sale of Aldridge Manor House. My question is: Once the sale is agreed and goes ahead will the Youth Club held at the Manor House be closed or will it be relocated to other premises in Aldridge?"

It took until 5th July 2011 to respond and no explanation was given as to why a simple FOI request should take so long. The response was one sentence.

" I  can confirm that any decisions in the future  relating to the Youth Club will be subject to consultation with all interested parties and will include efforts to relocate the  service."

As far as I've been able to ascertain the only consultation thus far carried out has been with the young people who have used the centre since April this year. There has been no wider consultation with the community at large. There also appears to have been no effort at all in attempting to relocate the service. Instead we are left with the mind blowing decision that youth services for Aldridge are to be run from the back of a van. It's fair to say that there are other areas of Walsall where this type of service is to be imposed in the name of cuts or 'efficiency savings' and perhaps people in those areas need to start campaigning for their local youth service too.

The general community it seems are quick to point the finger at young people and accuse them of being responsible for all the ills that come under the label of anti-social behaviour even if they're not responsible, so this sort of decision to abandon a decent youth service does affect everyone in the community and not just the service users because it is the community at large that will suffer the consequences of our young people not having a permanent place to go, staffed by youth workers with a permanent base.

Councillor Rachel Andrew has promised (in press releases) that youth work will continue in Aldridge and other areas with a mobile service and pop-up youth clubs. John Morris, Local Area Manager gave details of where such services have already been successfully implemented. I took a look at this services in other areas and without fail, each one still has permanent bases or hubs for the young people of those areas. The pop-ups have been utilised during school holidays in order to reach out to areas not normally covered by youth programmes in order to attempt reductions in anti-social behaviour where there have been problems and yes, they've been successful. The same goes for mobile services. They are seen as a supplement to the main youth service work. In all of these schemes although some have seen the closure of some youth centres, hubs have been created from where the pop-ups and mobile services have been run from.

This is not happening in Aldridge. Instead we potentially see a youth service for the area run from the back of a van. A vacancy has already been advertised for a 'mobile' youth worker. The first question that ran through my mind was where does a young person go if they need someone urgently, if there is no permanent base for the youth service?

On hearing of the definite closure of The Manor House Youth Club on 31st August I emailed all six local councillors for further information. Cllr Ansell, may he rest in peace, did respond immediately advising me to contact Cllr and Leader of the Council, Bird which I duly did. Neither he nor Cllrs Flower, Harris, Sears or Rochelle have ever bothered to respond to my communication. Cllr John Murray has been more helpful and provided this response:

""I have received a reply from the officer concerned with Aldridge Youth Club which responds to your queries in the following way:

1, The decision to close Aldridge Manor House followed the review of the Councils office accommodation through AM2010 led by Property Services.
2, The related business case and ‘Smarter workplaces’ report was agreed by Cabinet on 13th April 2011.
3, The report was identified as requiring a key decision and that it impacted upon ‘all wards’
4, Section 10 of the report refers to consultation activity and states ‘Consultation has been held with CMT/Cabinet, Strategic Property Board and Services which will be involved in the delivery of the programme’.
5, I am not aware of any other consultation activity with the community related to the decision to close AMH.
6, IYPSS are working with a range of services, young people and the wider community to develop an exit strategy from AMH and a programme of alternative provision to be delivered from September 2013.
The only one of your questions not answered above is the one regarding the associated minutes of a scrutiny or cabinet meeting. I would refer you to the minutes of the cabinet meeting held on 13 April 2011, which are available on the council website.
Please let me know if the above answers your questions or if there is anything else which I can do for you regarding this matter.
Councillor John Murray"

I thank Cllr Murray for his assistance. For the other councillors I just say that I am not impressed with what appears to be a  lack of concern for the young people of this area. Perhaps you've been too busy campaigning on other issues that aren't really even issues yet?

Although some questions have been answered by Cllr Murray for example and also by press releases, many haven't. The Council seem to be being evasive about certain direct questions, such as where can I see a copy of the Impact Assessment? I'm beginning to think that maybe an Impact Assessment on the consequences for all of the community in closing a permanent youth service in Aldridge has not been carried out. If this is so, then the Council are acting illegally. If one has been carried out why will nobody tell me where I can find it?

It also seems that this decision has not been discussed at Council or Cabinet since April 2011. So who made the decision to abandon a permanent youth centre for Aldridge and when?

Other questions that occur to me and for which local people need answers to are:

What efforts were made to relocate the youth service of Aldridge and who by?

What consultation has taken place since July 2011 and who with? Now I know that the subject was discussed at a local area committee meeting back in February but cannot locate any information regarding other consultation and Cllr Murray is not aware of any that has taken place either. How does this consultation fit in with the response to the FOI request?

What buildings have been identified in Aldridge as suitable for a pop-up service?

Where will the youth workers for Aldridge be based? Back of a van?

The vans; how many young people will they cater for actually inside and what facilities will be available for them within? I've seen the basketball hoop on the back of one van. Impressive!

What will the costs be for converting vans for using as a mobile youth service?

What are the potential savings in the closure of The Manor House?

What will happen to all the fabulous fixtures and fittings, equipment etc currently used at The Manor House?

Will the mobiles be able to support all of the courses and work done with young people? For example in recent years there have been courses for food hygiene with a proper recognised qualification awarded on successful completion. Are mobiles the best places for confidential and private counselling services that our young people often need and want?

Do our local councillors and Council honestly believe that they will be fulfilling all the necessary criteria in meeting what is a statutory service for this area?

Perhaps these questions will be answered at next weeks public meeting. If you have any and are unable to attend the meeting then please do contact me at taxwizzardATgmailDOTcom and I will be more than happy to raise them on your behalf.

I've concentrated on the loss of a permanent youth service but have said nothing about the sale of The Manor House itself. Just one question: what will become of it?