Last week FOHNCC wrote to each candidate for councillor in the Highgate Ward. Thank you to those you put their names to the letter. Here is a copy of our submission, and the responses we received.

“Dear (candidate),

We are writing to you as prospective candidate for Highgate Ward with urgent regard to our local community centre to ask whether you will support the community in its desire for the HNCC site to be surveyed and refurbished where possible, and to ensure the continued provision of full services at HNCC site until any works commence.

There was widespread and almost unanimous opposition from the local community to the HNCC development as agreed by Camden Council in April 2017.   A petition of over 400 local people objected to the scheme and you will see from the map attached below that there were over 120 formal objections from residents to the scheme with only 6 residents in favour.

We have been advised that the agreed scheme is now deemed financially unviable. Community objections not just to the scale and massing of the development but also the huge cost and financial risk that were ignored by the council have now been realised. We understand that a revised scheme is being prepared which will not meet the specification commitments made by the council to residents and service providers.

The position of the local community is clear.  We believe that a considered, timed and more sustainable refurbishment of the site undertaken in partnership between the Council and HNCC with support from the local community is the most sensible and least risky option.

We are also concerned that HNCC has prematurely moved its under fives services to Islington. No works will take place before 2019 and we are, therefore, asking you to ensure the continued provision of full services at the HNCC site until any works commence.

The community has been ignored to date and the council has wasted several hundred thousand pounds pursuing an unpopular and unviable scheme. We would like to bring to your attention the fact that thanks to an FOI request we know that no reliable survey of the building has taken place and that talk of £3 million being required to make the buildings viable had no basis in fact. As such, any sensible evaluation of the situation should start with a full survey of the condition of the buildings.   We now ask whether you will support the community in its demand for the HNCC site to be surveyed and refurbished where possible rather than demolished and rebuilt.

We would very much appreciate your response in writing to both these issues at the earliest opportunity and by 20th April at the latest.

Yours sincerely

Thanos Morphitis, Francisco Javier Encinas , Patricia Salazar, Nick Mann, Jon Levy, Maya Vaughan, Abby Cronin, Linda Davies, Karin Encinas-Parde, Mal Mitchell, Jocelyn Wellburn, Ovidio Salazar, Kate Wilson, Timothy Blackburn, Yvonne Clyne, Shelly King, Sally Griffin , Barry Rosen, Agnes Stewart, Zoe Sanders, Daniella Harris , Carol Dean, Tim Greenhalgh, Elisabet Magura , Ross Shadbolt, Chris Wells, Ian Williams, Zoe Shevlin, Jill Furmanovsky, Mandy Morris, Michaela Owens, Eiril Venvik Skarbek

On behalf of Friends of HNCC”

We received three responses;

Dear residents,

Thank you very much for your letter, and your concern to make sure that the Highgate Newtown Community Centre has a secure future. The value of this facility to Highgate cannot be overestimated. It is at the heart of our community, providing activities for all ages with a wide range of both active and creative options that contribute hugely to local people’s wellbeing. The youth services provided on site by FRA add further to this value.

Andrew and the HNCC team have made enormous efforts over recent years to become more self-financing while their grant was cut, while maintaining their valuable free services. That they have done so under conditions of much uncertainty about the details of the future facilities they will have on site is even more impressive.

Like all of you, we are concerned that options to refurbish the current buildings were not developed fully enough when the current plans were being made. It has been left to residents to get the details of previous surveys and make a true estimate of the cost of repairing and refurbishing the centre to a high standard, which is very disappointing.

We are also concerned that full demolition of the current buildings was decided upon without proper consideration of the risks of the very ambitious option 5 that the council chose to pursue, when option 4.4 (retaining the current community centre building and adapting it for new homes, while moving the sports hall and replacing the current FRA and nursery/woodwork buildings) was regarded as the most acceptable to the local community of all the more extensive development options explored. This option did not provide quite the surplus required by the council, but also did not carry the same level of risk as the one chosen, and other options to make up the shortfall could have been explored.

Now that the project is being delayed while the design and construction options are being simplified and scaled back, we believe that both these options – for refurbishment of all the current buildings, and for the conversion of the current community centre building for housing while rebuilding the rest of the site – should be looked at again.

It seems likely that a viable version of option 5 will be hard to devise, which could lead to further delay, and risks uncertainty for several more years. In the latest discussions it also appears that the size and range of community centre facilities provided will now fall below the commitments made to the community in earlier phases of consultation.

In contrast, the amount needed for a refurbishment that could add decades of future life to the current buildings could potentially be obtained through fundraising if an accurate target figure were known. The former caretaker’s cottage is a potential source of revenue. As three Green Party councillors for Highgate we would be fully committed to help with wider fundraising and grant applications, and believe the local community would put a huge amount of effort into finding whatever sum was needed to secure the future of HNCC.

Sian Berry has attended recent Community Interest Group meetings and asked for both these options to be considered again in more detail, and we hope these will be presented to the community at meetings after the election.

Finally, we want to comment on the use of the site in the coming months. The decision was taken to rethink the project after the community centre team had been making plans to relocate for some time, and several of the groups based there have now moved away, as your letter points out. This will affect the finances of the community centre as well as the number of activities available for local people. We agree the council must take steps to fully compensate HNCC for this delay, and not charge the organisation any rent during this period to help support its viability. We also need to see more meanwhile use made of the rooms and spaces while final decisions are being taken.

There are many local groups who could make good use of these spaces to bring life to the site. In particular we would like to see under-5s activities return and the community garden space reopened and used again. The hoardings have been decorated but their presence gives the impression of a construction site, when it could be a beautiful space again. In addition, some of the organisations Sian has worked with recently elsewhere, who specialise in finding meanwhile uses for empty shops and buildings, could be consulted.

We hope this reply is helpful. Some links to previous comments by Green Party councillors in Highgate, including our objections to option 5 in planning are below, which shows our constructive engagement with these plans for many years.

Very best wishes,

Sian Berry, Kirsten de Keyser and John Holmes

Green Party candidates for Highgate Ward

“Dear friends,

Thank you for your email. As a new candidate for Highgate, I was not involved in the planning process for the Highgate Newtown Community Centre redevelopment. However, it has been an issue raised by some residents and I have been trying to understand the reasons for decisions that have been taken.
I know HNCC is an important part of the community and providing full provision of services in the future is vital. I have been assured that though some services have been moved to other locations, all services are still running. Additionally, all planning has been made with continuation of services in mind, and with the idea of making the centre self sufficient.
As I understand it, there have been several discussions on this subject over the years on how best to move forward, and whether a refurbishment or full development would be the better option. Refurbishing the centre would of course always be the preferred option if it is viable. This would also lessen disruption for residents, and would always be my first option on any potential development over a potential full rebuild. However, I believe a decision was made at the time that the best way to create a sustainable HNCC was to rebuild it with 32 flats that would be sold to raise the money for the development. With the council facing huge cuts from government, it has been difficult to raise money to keep services going and this was deemed the best way forward.
I understand the HNCC board is having meetings with the council with the revisions on the plans though I do not know if timescales have been discussed at this time. If I am elected in Highgate, I will make it one of my priorities to ensure that works are carried out on time and in a satisfactory manner, and that any development is not only fit for purpose but also sustainable. Of course developers must also be sympathetic to the concerns of local residents, and I would be happy to be a prime contact for any development concerns residents have.
If you would like to discuss this matter further, I have included my phone number and am also happy to meet face to face. I do hope that we will be able to work together to deliver a community centre that is a source of local pride, and that can be self sustained into the future.
Best wishes,
Maddy Raman”

“Dear Friends of Highgate Newtown Community Centre

Thank you for your email. As you are aware, as a new candidate for Highgate Ward I have not been involved in the history of the development proposals at HNCC. However, during recent campaigning this issue has been raised with me by several local residents and I realise that the future of HNCC is an issue of great importance to the local community. I have therefore sought to ensure I understand the reasons for the decisions made by Camden Council. I have also asked about the continued provision of existing services, on which point I have been assured that, although some are now offered from other locations, all services are still running.

 My understanding is that the plans to rebuild the community centre were born because the existing facilities were considered not fit for purpose.  The maintenance and repairs to the buildings were proving expensive and unsustainable and threatening the long term survival of the centre. This was, of course, compounded by the fact that central government cuts to the local authority budget meant that Camden’s hands were tied in terms of finding new and extra money for community centres in the borough. But everyone recognised that the local community derives great benefit from the services provided by HNCC and there was a determination to protect these and make sure the HNCC wasn’t allowed to simply dwindle and die.

 For me, personally, I am well aware of the value of the services at HNCC for the local community (my own kids have benefitted) and I certainly feel strongly that assuring these can be sustained into the future must be a priority. I wish that we were in a position where resource constraints did not play such a decisive role in dictating the course of action for saving HNCC. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the council could finance the rebuilding of the facilities without any need for the project to be self-financing?!

 What saddens me is that the complications around these plans have given rise to such disagreement between some members of the community and our counsellors and council who, after all, share the same aims for HNCC. We all want to see a community centre that can provide a range of services, particularly for those most marginalised, and to ensure this provision is secure into the future.  I very much hope that, after the local elections, we might be able to find a constructive way to work together to ensure that the revised plans do not fall short of the commitments that were made to residents and service providers (for example to be sure that the football pitch is retained) and that the project gets delivered efficiently and to a high standard.

 With best wishes,

 Anna Wright”