An asset transfer, one year on

Robert Ashton cropped webThe transfer of an asset from a county council to a community group can attract a lot of attention. But too little is said about what happens later, when the dust has settled and the new venture takes shape.

The Charles Burrell High School campus was redundant and empty, but for round the clock security guard and dog. It was costing Norfolk Council money and starting to deteriorate. Yet, situated at the centre of a large social housing estate in Thetford, it was perfectly placed. Questions were being asked, not least by Terry Jermy, who was both a town and county councillor and old boy of the school.

Thetford itself is something of a conundrum. It was one of the first to approach the then London County Council to offer to accommodate those eager to leave the capital for new homes and jobs. Rapid expansion brought its own problems, some of which linger on today. Yet the town is 30 minutes by road or rail from Cambridge.

I took a group of councillors to Shine in Leeds, to show them how a redundant school there had become a thriving community hub. There were other visits, a business plan and some community consultation meetings, for which I brought my namesake Adrian Ashton down from Todmorden. Coops UK advised on structure and with a robust business plan, the asset was transferred from the council, first to Thetford Town Council and then on to a new multi-stakeholder cooperative.

The Charles Burrell Centre, as it is now called, just had its first annual general meeting, at which centre manager Mark Snowdon reported on the achievements of their first year. This is what he said:

‘Approximately 110 jobs have either been created or ring fenced thanks to the centre and its tenants. That’s 110 employees that can say they work from Charles Burrell Centre.

‘A total of 316 people have learnt English here through West Suffolk College and NCC Adult Education, meaning they can go home and talk to their neighbours, ask for help in a supermarket or be interviewed for employment.

‘A further 181 have enrolled in various other courses through West Suffolk College gaining qualifications to enhance their careers. Many more will begin new courses after the summer break.

‘Around 120 children visit the centre on a weekly basis to participate in dance and gymnastics classes with their friends in a safe environment with qualified coaches.

‘A total 55 children currently attend the two nurseries on site to support their development and help parents with childcare meaning they can work during the daytime.

‘One hundred children and babies visit the toy library each week to play and learn while their parents can socialise and not feel alone during the tough times parenting can bring. They can also rent toys for as little as £1 and give them back when they like, ensuring parents can provide for their children without the costly expense of entertainment.

‘In total, 1314 adults and 697 children have received food packages here from Thetford food bank since they expanded their service at the centre. This number continues to rise on a weekly basis.

‘Countless individuals have enhanced their own health by attending some of the 17 fitness classes that are held here each week including Zumba yoga, Pilates and kettlebells. The Core Studio also offers rehabilitation for those that have suffered from a stroke, cardiovascular disease or a heart attack.

‘A total of 17 new businesses have been created at CBC giving 17 new business owners a chance to learn, develop their organisations and reap the successes they bring.

‘This centre itself has created seven new jobs and this may increase further as we work towards 100% occupancy.

‘Eleven individuals have completed work experience programmes through Seetec and Jobcentre Plus and have gone on to find employment as a direct result. Several more are still with us and continuing to develop their skills and confidence.

‘We have also become one of the first places in Thetford that unites all communities together. With several Portuguese tenants, a Portuguese café and English classes that have welcome students from Poland, Lithuania and Latvia many of them have then gone on to attend various activities at the centre.

‘We have wellbeing classes to tackle stress, anxiety, addiction, and depression. Community nursing and a fly-tipping project are just some of the other services that you can find here. All of them tackling issues within our daily lives.

‘So we can confidently say we are enhancing the lives of local residents and will continue to do so for a very long time!’

It’s an impressive result from a campus that some wanted to bulldoze to build more homes. It’s evidence that, handled correctly, an asset transfer can create a massive impact, right where it’s needed, in the heart of the community.

My sense is that there’s growing acceptance of the fact that sending legions of support workers into a troubled community can confuse, not cure, the social ills that beset them. The Charles Burrell Centre is an example of just how effective it can be to start with the people and work out. In the nineteenth Charles Burrell build steam engines in the town. Today at the centre that bears his name it’s definitely a case of ‘full steam ahead’!


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