Halifax charity group loses control of social centre as Calderdale Council takes over

A charity group says it is considering all its options following a council decision to take back a major social centre into local authority control.

Wednesday, 4th September 2019, 9:51 am
Centre at Threeways Ltd, Ovenden
Centre at Threeways Ltd, Ovenden

Centre at Threeways Ltd has a 125-year lease on the nine-acre north Halifax site but Calderdale Council recently set in motion a Section 146 notice to take back the former school campus into its control citing concerns about the charity’s financial viability and other issues relating to the building, including health and safety.

Calderdale Council’s Cabinet agreed in the private section of its meeting on July 29 to refer the matter to the courts for determination.

For the moment, stresses the charity, it is still “business as usual” for the thousands of people, community groups, charities and businesses using the centre, which is at Nursery Lane, Ovenden.

Councillors also decided any further financial support should not be provided directly to the Centre at Threeways organisation and in the event of direct control and management of the Centre at Threeways estate reverting to the local authority, the council will take measures that are “practical and affordable” to sustain third sector use of the site.

The council will also investigate demolition and redevelopment options for part of the site, consider options for the sports hall either on the site or supporting alternative local venues to provide it, and maintain ongoing dialogue with funders regarding the future of Threeways and the services it houses.

But the charity argues it has not been treated fairly and says relations with the council, which Centre at Threeways recognises is a major stakeholder, began to sour last September when the council urged it not to go ahead with an ambitious planning application for housing at the back of the site.

Chief Executive of Centre at Threeways Ltd, Sam Tarff, says this would be key to securing the financial future of the site and was tailor-made to match local requirements with 55 units, a mix of some supported living accommodation and homes which would be affordable to young families in the north Halifax area.

It would also include some all-weather sports provision, he said.

Calderdale Council’s Director of Regeneration and Strategy, Mark Thompson, did not comment on the housing plan issue but said the council believed Centre at Threeways’ financial position was unsustainable so action had to be taken.

“The asset transfer of the Centre at Threeways site was always a very ambitious project.

“The Threeways Management Board has shown determination to provide a range of facilities within the community, but unfortunately Threeways’ financial position is unsustainable and the current situation cannot be maintained,” he said.

Mr Tarff said Threeways was the biggest site asset-transferred in Europe, an example of community-led regeneration, housing organisations and activities ranging from the council’s children’s and adults’ social services to groups like Growing Together.

With 17 tenants, also home to a dozen charities, several micro enterprises and with a sizeable well-used sports centre, around 3,500 people per month used Threeways with 85 per cent of them coming from a three-mile radius from the Ovenden, Mixenden and Illingworth wards which needed and valued the centre, he said.

“We had a long term, financially viable solution that would not only make the charity sustainable but also develop the rest of the site in response to expressed local business needs and make the site sutainable,” said Mr Tarff.

Responding to concerns about viability and building issues, it was always envisaged there were challenges and the charity was grateful for the support the council had given over the years – the partnership nature of the project had “absolutely worked,” said Mr Tarff.

But the £1 million capital funding and £250,000 revenue funding the charity had been able to draw on from a number of funders to start with was always going to be just the start for a longer term strategy for the centre.

The council knew the site was in a poor state of repair and at Cabinet one of the charity’s trustees, Lawrence Fear, asked why the council asset-transferred it to a small community organisation knowing it had work to be done to bring it up to standard, said Mr Tarff. Centre at Threeways also had to overcome lost income following the sports centre building’s flooding in 2015 but since reopening in January 2018 it had recovered 75 per cent of the groups using it.

Mr Thompson said support had been given but the council had to serve a legal notice to bring the lease with Centre at Threeways to an end due to alleged breaches including health and safety issues, meaning the council would take back direct ownership and management of the site.

It had to take emergency action last year to ensure fire safety on site, dedicating its employees’ time and resources to do this, said Mr Thompson.

“The council has always been a passionate advocate of the project and has given significant amounts of time and financial support to the organisation over a number of years, as well as fighting for external funding to help them reach a sustainable position.

“Both the council and Threeways knew about the funding and work requirements when management of the site was first transferred. Threeways’ business plan covered the capital investment they had committed to provide, but unfortunately this hasn’t been possible for them to fulfil,” he said.

Mr Tarff said when the centre was made aware that there were issues with health and safety the group immediately informed the council and commissioned a diagnostic test, and worked closely with council health and safety officers, doing what it could within resources it had available, including producing a fire management plan within four hours and responding very well.

Mr Tarff said Centre at Threeways was told it would have the chance to provide its input into the Cabinet report – but this had never happened. The result was that the charity was unable to challenge any of the information which had gone into the recommendations presented to Cabinet.

Mr Thompson responded: “We have endeavoured to meet with, and support, the Centre at Threeways organisation throughout this period and outlined the Cabinet report recommendations to them in advance of its consideration.

“The council is developing options to deliver a more sustainable future for the project and will continue to work closely with users of the site.”

Mr Tarff said the charity felt decisions had been made prematurely and they had not been dealt with fairly as an organisation and urged the council to reconsider its decision.

Threeways were now looking as all options open to them, he said.

The charity had been appreciative of the support the council had given Threeways in earlier times and would work with Calderdale to try and secure its future.

“We will continue to work with the council because we think this place is worth fighting for and keeping open for the community but we are not happy at the way we have been dealt with,” said Mr Tarff.

“It’s not about the charity, it is about the people in the community.”