“The shift towards people power that is happening in the wider economy has yet to be grasped by our politicians. Collaboration among citizens acting as customers, commissioners and producers is the way to tackle public service problems”

Guardian Letter, 12th February 2014

In the Beginning

The request came out of the blue in 2009 from the local councillor, Julie Brociek-Coulton (Julie B-C). Could I chair a meeting of local residents who would be asked to support a campaign to preserve the use of the Silver Rooms in Norwich as a day centre for the elderly? There was a strong suspicion that the Norfolk County Council were determined to sell as much of their property portfolio as possible and the Rooms were in the front line. This was ostensibly to give the taxpayer some recompense at a time when services were being cut and millions of pounds were disappearing from investments in public services. This was a ruling party’s (Conservatives) policy and we shall return to their tactics at a later stage.

There was a strong suspicion that the Norfolk County Council were determined to sell as much of their property portfolio as possible and the Rooms were in the front line. This was ostensibly to give the taxpayer some recompense at a time when services were being cut and millions of pounds were disappearing from investments in public services.

I had visited the Silver rooms several times in my political life and knew how respected it was in the community and how it was held in great esteem by its users and staff. It was a centre that many a political animal wished to visit during the 4 year campaign to save the Rooms. The staff who worked there were devoted professionals and were held in great regard by the 60 or so users of the centre. It may have lacked the facilities to treat patients with certain health problems but it was a haven of support and friendships were made. Hairdressing facilities were provided as well as lunchtime meals and sing a longs and bingo were a major enjoyment. It was a jewel in the Sewell (Mousehold) area of the city. Norfolk County Council were seeking to close it and another centre at the opposite end of the city – the Essex Rooms. This made many people unhappy and questioned the commitment of the County Council to people who felt vulnerable and lonely.

The meeting of the Silver Rooms supporters resolved to campaign to keep the facility open in the face of opposition from the County Councillor in charge as well as the Council staff who were providing adult services from the County headquarters.
Day centre closures were to be part of the savings that were necessary they said because of the actions of the previous government. Local MPs and councillors were sympathetic to the campaign Julie B-C and another Green councillor joined the Friends of the Silver Rooms committee which was set up during the meeting which gave us much encouragement.

In summary, the Silver Rooms were said to be “surplus to requirements” and the care for the elderly programme would be developed elsewhere. Suffice it to say that the public saw that the decision to close the centre with nothing more than a promise to keep the ‘clients’ together, was not acceptable. It was very bad public relations by the County Council and they knew it. They attempted to persuade a sceptical meeting and general public that nothing will happen until the care of the users was assured in other facilities. These officials came from Adult Social Care Services.

In summary, the Silver Rooms were said to be “surplus to requirements” and the care for the elderly programme would be developed elsewhere. Suffice it to say that the public saw that the decision to close the centre with nothing more than a promise to keep the ‘clients’ together, was not acceptable.

Ian Gibson chairing meeting with Harold Bodmer Social services to save the Silver RoomsThe next few months saw a nucleus of the Friends of the Silver Rooms committee involved in discussions with officials at County Hall. We were taken on visits to other care homes. The result of these visits was to voice our dissatisfaction with the facilities offered to residents of the Silver Rooms. The campaign nearly stagnated in the face of Council inertia. A persuasive campaign was run by the Council, its spokesman Harold Bodmer and his staff one of whom moved to the private body set up to handle care services in Norfolk. They convinced the users of the Rooms to “trust us as we are working on finding you new accommodation and are determined to keep you all together.” It worked as the users resigned from the Friends of the Silver Room committee.

Here the campaign could from then on have stopped and the building been pulled down and flats built. However, at a meeting one day in the Centre I proposed we ran the centre ourselves and Julie supported this and argued for a community centre. I had talked to a social enterprise group whom we had asked to the meeting and they described what was required to the few remaining members of the committee. The principle of having a community centre in this part of the city and to take over the future use of the premises following the re-allocation of the users to other places was a seriously important idea. A centre run by the residents for the residents in the community asks for strong commitment from many people. This was the important step, easy to conceive but it required a strong commitment from the community. Later in this review we will describe the next step and how the community rose to the challenges.

However, at a meeting one day in the Centre I proposed we ran the centre ourselves and Julie supported this and argued for a community centre.

We have been informed in 2014 that the creation of the Centre has been approved and supported by the Council. It has to be recognised that it was the community who fought for this not individuals alone and certainly without much support from political groupings, councils and major charities. It was the Open Days for the community which we will describe later which kept us going and gave us the confidence to tackle the insinuations of the hopelessness of the campaign and the need for such a centre in a decrepit old building. It is to the credit of a few people that they believed in the concept and were prepared to work for a Community Centre. The nucleus throughout the campaign were there from the beginning (J B-C and the author) and were joined at various times on the committee by several people who are named in our introduction, and we are grateful for their support and expertise.

History of the Silver Rooms

It is of course important to understand the support for the Silver Rooms project in terms of the building’s history. It is a single storey sitting on the end of Silver Road where it meets Barrack Street. Opposite the Cottage Pub, it has large and small meeting rooms, toilet facilities and a large kitchen area. It was built as a church meeting room in 1910 but in 1972 it was given to Norwich City Council as a community facility. We have searched high and low and asked the official bodies for the transfer documents but we have always drawn a blank. The disappearance of the documents may have occurred during the transfer of ownerships of the rooms to Norfolk County Council in the 1970s. It was taken over by the Adult Social Care Department to provide a day care centre for older people as well as those with physical and sensory impairment.

In 2008 the government issued a “Putting People First” concordat which was followed by a personal agenda for individuals when they were issued eventually with personal budgets. The County Council developed a policy for their “clients” to spend their budget and also sought to address the problems of dementia, rehabilitation, caring etc. There was still a cynicism about their efforts to deliver these services in the face of setting up private sector provision. Nevertheless, the users of the Silver Rooms were persuaded to move to use several other centres by Christmas 2012, some 3 years after the fate of the Silver Rooms was placed in the public domain. They seem to be content and the door was then open to consider the attitude of the Friends to the empty Silver Rooms.

Analysis of the Structure of Community

The Norwich City Council has several electoral wards under its jurisdiction and the Sewell Ward within which the Rooms are has in the region of some 12,000 population (ONS 2009). There is private and social housing, and local authority run sheltered housing. There are three schools, two of which have pre-school units, a college school and junior school and an infant school. There is an exclusion unit for teenagers as well as a Sure Start Centre. There is a mental health residential care unit and facilities for housing those with disabilities. Some of the interesting information from this census is described in the following tables.

Table 1

  • 9.8% are 65 plus
  • 14.9% have limiting long term illness
  • 18% are NEETS (aged 16-24); that is not in education, employment or training
  • 16% are in social housing
  • 14% are income deprived (21.8% of children)
  • 3.7% are unemployed
  • 7.5% are black or from ethnic minority groups (Africa, Caribbean, Asia and Middle East)
  • 6.9% are white non-British (from Western and Eastern Europe)
  • Experience crime rates of 86 per 1,000 population

Tables 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 illustrate other features of the resident population:

Table 2 – Demographics

DescriptionValue
People aged:
5 - 73.1%
8 - 92%
10 - 144.5%
151.1%
16 - 171.7%
18 - 192.6%
20 - 2410.5%
25 - 2912.9%
30 - 4425.8%
45 - 5915.4%
60 - 643.5%
65 - 745.3%
75 - 844.5%
85 - 891.3%
90+0.1%

Table 3 – Religion

DescriptionValue
Buddhist35
Christian5,534
Hindu33
Jewish13
Muslim89
Sikh5
No religion2,985
Religion not stated982
Other religions59

Table 4 – Income

  • 14.9% are of working age and claiming benefits
  • 6.4% are of working age and claiming support allowance, so they were classed as having ill health
  • 14% were classed as income deprived affecting 21.8% of children

Table 5 – Education

  • 18.3% have no qualifications
  • 72-73% have achieved Key Stage Level 4 in Maths and English

Table 6 – Employment

  • 38% of those in employment were in higher level occupational groups, eg managers, senior officials, professional occupations etc.
  • 10.2% are self employed
  • So the remaining 52% are in lower level employment

There are of course a percentage of the people who live in Sewell and are “off radar” but it is impossible to know the size of this grouping.

Our plan, as Friends, was to address all of these sub-communities and to involve them from the earliest days. Consultations, leaflet drops, phone calls, open days and press and media involvement drew them into the issues which swirled around the Rooms. From the earliest days we were concerned first as Friends of the Silver Rooms then as Friends of the Silver Road Community Centre (set up in 2013) to involve all age groups. In particular we focussed on providing a community centre where the needs of young people were to be heavily canvassed.

In particular we focussed on providing a community centre where the needs of young people were to be heavily canvassed.

We also felt the need to ensure people felt it was their centre by involving them in generating activities and ideas. An Ideas Centre like NESTA in London, The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, would be set up to create new initiatives resulting in better facilities and delivery of services in their area of Norwich City. Gathering evidence with the support of the University of East Anglia will be a major part of this initiative. This will involve national, local and international experiences; with input from the public. The idea is progressing. There is also potential for ex-UEA lecturers and others to provide courses at a Free University.

Another initiative will involve those residents who were not born in the UK and a significant percentage of the Sewell population can be described in these terms. They contribute to the economic and cultural life of the area and they must be fully included in our plans. We have talked to them from the earliest days. Those who can be described as elderly also made up a significant percentage of the community and are destined to grow in numbers and with very specific health and care problems. A major initiative will be needed to address these various health problems of pensioners eg obesity, care etc. Programmes will be planned and we will concentrate on delivery in the community centre.

The involvement of these groups either through the Ideas Centre and/or in the decision making governance structure will be essential if the Centre is to be successful and to provide a model for others.