The Campaign Continues

It became clear in 2010 if not earlier that the users of the Silver Rooms would be moved to other accommodation with their agreement. Was it time to say it’s over and to let the Council move to auction and sell to some enriched developer who could plan housing on the site? At this time the government was pushing ahead with its Localism Act which it eventually passed in 2011. With outside advice we studied the Act and found the terms under which the property could be given or sold to the community. At the same time the Coalition government and particularly the Prime Minister was articulating on the Big Society whereby power was transmitted to local groups. A protest meeting in 2010 at County Hall resulted in my being asked to speak on the future of the Silver Rooms. I was grateful to a Lib/Dem Councillor for this opportunity. It was clear that no-one had read the Act including the officials. As for the “Big Society,” I think no-one understood it, cared about it or actively opposed it. The major consideration seemed to be to respond to the lack of Government support for local services. A shift to local control and development of initiatives certainly did not appear to have been a major consideration. To us it meant a new challenge and even a new politics. A sullen bunch of Councillors gave us no encouragement. At this time only Julie B-C who was, of course, on our Committee and maybe two others were on our side.

At this time the government was pushing ahead with its Localism Act which it eventually passed in 2011. With outside advice we studied the Act and found the terms under which the property could be given or sold to the community.

Our committee held Open Days throughout the years 2010-12 with the public to explain what was happening. Their enthusiasm continued to be infective and the need and desire to preserve the Rooms was clear. Throughout the 4 years of the campaign, the public in Sewell attended meetings, wrote to local papers, picketed Norwich City Council and remained vocal and supportive to keep the Rooms in public service. We also wrote to the relevant Minister without any success. Open Days were a roaring success with J B-C and a few other supporters raising sponsorships (from Kevin Fitzmaurice) leafleting the streets, generally raising the issue across this area of the City and bringing in the schools to support the campaign. Entertainers like Olly Day gave their services for free. The Council represented by Norfolk Property Services (NPS) and other council officials met with ourselves in 2011 but continued to prevaricate on the date when they would close it as a Day Centre. Further engagement with politicians was denied at all stages since they were awaiting the views of the officials and in particular The Norfolk Property Service (NPS) who through their professional advisers for disposal of Council properties, finally offered us it on 11th October 2011 for £80,000. A further Open Day was held and support continued to mount from the public. The date for the purchase was extended until the end of 2011.

Our committee held Open Days throughout the years 2010-12 with the public to explain what was happening. Their enthusiasm continued to be infective and the need and desire to preserve the Rooms was clear.

Council officials came and went to new positions but yet their disarray on decision making was clear to our side during the negotiations. Some of our committee got tired, fell out with each other or gave up the battle. The core of the Friends fought on, however. The uncertainty in decision-making by the County Council, and to some degree, the City Council, made them look like rabbits in the headlights. The promises to have an agreement between the two councils on day care for the elderly dragged on throughout 2010 and part of 2011.

We would not give up. Our motivation for the building was to develop it as a Community Centre. This had come about after a discussion with a Social Enterprise Group in Norwich, The Guild. They were persuaded to address another opening meeting at the Christchurch Centre in 2011. At this meeting there was a lukewarm response from councillors of all parties (with one notable exception), political activists and major charities. There was an unwillingness to contemplate a community centre run by the public for the public. “There was no money for such a project,” the spokesman for Age UK said at the public meeting.

We would not give up. Our motivation for the building was to develop it as a Community Centre.

The committee remained adamant that the idea was worth pursuing and owning or leasing the building would start the ball rolling. Even to this day in 2014 there is a deep distrust of our campaign in high places and certainly of giving people a chance to try to run their own enterprise – but not completely!!

We wrote to the leader of the County Council who said no when we asked if we could address the full County Council. He pointed us in the direction of his appointment of a councillor who was in control of negotiations over building purchases. We called for a meeting with him. The local MP came to the meeting which took place in the presence of two County Councillors. Three of us were also present where I presented, along with Julie B-C, the case for a free transfer of the property for the purposes outlined above. Whilst we argued all the social advantages it was hard to put forward detailed financial figures, but we argued that there was still a large advantage for the public in the face of the cuts. Some 40 groups wished to use the facility for their enterprises ie youth groups, schools, film clubs etc. Furthermore, the terms of the Localism Act allowed for our request. At this stage it was simply a few of us fighting a bureaucratic Council. The MP never spoke but clearly agreed with their view. We were told it could never be given to us for free. They followed up this meeting by offering to sell it to us for £80,000 which could be paid in 3 tranches over a period of time. The taxpayer they argued needed to be paid especially in the face of the cuts totalling millions. A date for the payment was given and if not met the building would be put up for auction. Indeed they did this given we were not clear in stating we would pay and again no local support came from the official political parties or councils. Several individuals and organisations offered to buy it for us and then lease it back to us. The argument extended until the end of 2012. Indeed they even set up the auction date given we had not stated we would pay by the date given.

We rejected this tactic since it still meant we wouldn’t have secure possession of the building for a community centre. Many eminent public figures indicated we would have their support but only if we owned or leased the building, I felt time was running out for our community centre. At this point, we played our ace card in late 2012. Aware of the clause in the Localism Act describing the concept of a Community Asset we decided to use the Act and applied for the City Council to register the Silver Rooms as an Asset. There was some confusion about how and who should adjudicate the issue.

…we played our ace card in late 2012. Aware of the clause in the Localism Act describing the concept of a Community Asset we decided to use the Act and applied for the City Council to register the Silver Rooms as an Asset.

Everyone agrees with localism whether it be parents running their own schools or trusts running their own hospital or health services. Julie B-C and the City Council resolved the issue. It emerged that the City Council who had to decide on our claim for the Silver Rooms as a Community Asset and councillors had to approve the request. This they did. Kevin Fitzmaurice and his charity were completely supportive of our claim and helped at the twelfth hour and supported our appeal. However, the County Council appealed to overturn its decision and again it was decided that a legal official of the City Council would listen to their appeal. I was asked to represent the Friends of the Community Centre in a one to one hearing, a role enforced by the City Council. The case for the County Council was that we could not be expected to raise the money to buy it. I made the point that this was wrong. We could raise the money and I named several sources. A few days later we were told we had won the argument so there was to be a delay on selling the building at auction for 6 months. I believe this was the first Community Asset claim under the Localism Act in Norfolk and many others have sought to use it. It had not escaped our notice that there was a strong possibility that there might within a few months be a change of political complexion in the County following local elections. In 2013 despite the ruling party taking most seats they vacated power to a coalition of parties who in principle might support us. We sent a letter to each elected councillor in these coalition parties asking for support. Several members of the coalition parties wrote to me (Greens, Lib Dem and UKIP) and said they favoured a peppercorn rent or donate it for free. Many other Councillors were more concerned, however, with the public resistance to an incinerator within the King’s Lynn district.

At the time of writing, our business plan has now been approved and we have signed a lease, currently for 25 years at £1 per year. The Silver Road Community Centre is now an approved Charity. Other groups followed our progress using our model to take over their own facilities, be it a pub, school, social club or woods threatened with the prospect of having houses built on the site.

…our business plan has now been approved and we have signed a lease, currently for 25 years at £1 per year.

Support came from the local Evening News in reporting the progress of the negotiations at all stages. A local charity was heavily involved in the discussions over the Community Asset bid. In the early years the press ran a campaign ‘Save the Silver Rooms’. The organisation Locality, experts in the understanding of The Localism Act, was amazingly helpful in preparing our case for ownership. They funded the preparation of our business plan and have a direct line to government. The Lottery Fund also helped us with website development. Without the amazing support of the Sewell Ward community, however, financial support would never have emerged.

Interestingly during the discussions around the Community Asset issue several “entrepreneurs” had visited the site in the belief that it would soon be up for auction. Thankfully they never got their wish. I am grateful to Steve Wiseman and that of the other trustees for their continued support at this crucial time.

The Triumph of the People

We have now been offered the Silver Rooms as a Community Centre on an annual lease. The purposes are defined in our business plan. We are now proceeding to develop our website, have achieved Charity status and are applying for grants to fund staff and to make the necessary structural changes to the building. We will shortly be setting up an Open Day as well as an Annual General Meeting to engage the community.

I have throughout accentuated the role of the community in the successful campaign to win the argument for the establishment of a Community Centre in the Sewell Ward of the City of Norwich in the Silver Rooms alongside Julie B-C. Given the failure of the previous Tory administration to sell the building in Silver Road at auction due to the skilful use of the Localism Act and the accidental inheritance of the public sector cuts agenda by the new coalition of UKIP, Lib/Dem and Labour the campaign has become, in the author’s opinion and experience, one of the most significant victories raising new political horizons in Norfolk politics.

Politicians of all hues bend in the wind when there is strong organisation allied to intelligent campaigning involving the community including schools, people of all ages combining in their communities, workplaces, streets and charities working for the community interest. In effect the work of the campaign committee made it difficult for politicians to do anything else but give it to us. The campaigners have always accentuated how people themselves have to take the initiative and organise the centre to improve people’s lives.

Politicians of all hues bend in the wind when there is strong organisation allied to intelligent campaigning involving the community including schools, people of all ages combining in their communities, workplaces, streets and charities working for the community interest.

Few events happen by accident but good organisation and understanding of political “shenanigans” can drive you along the road to success. It was the residents of Sewell and Trustees who kept the battle alive. That’s why the Silver Rooms’ campaign is and was a crucial campaign for helping people to gain confidence and experience. The centre will be needed to make life more tolerable and worth living. Let’s hope this report stimulates others to campaign to take control of their lives and to take over buildings. Maybe our campaign will encourage others to take up the cudgels to save their local pub, adult education and social services. This Centre and the mobilisation of the community will lend a strong focus for new ideas and activities to emerge. I have every confidence that their determination and enthusiasm will ensure success. Many different community groups and interests will flourish in this “Jewel of Sewell.”

Let’s hope this report stimulates others to campaign to take control of their lives and to take over buildings. Maybe our campaign will encourage others to take up the cudgels to save their local pub, adult education and social services.