Youth centre campaigners confront Redbridge Council

Users of an under-threat youth centre in Wanstead have urged Redbridge Council to keep it open for another year.

Despite the council’s claim that it has not yet made a decision about the future of Wanstead Youth Centre, it will no longer be open to the public from May.

At a full council meeting on Thursday March 23, campaigners – who filled the public gallery – forced a debate on the centre’s future after submitting a petition with 2,300 signatures.

The petition urges council management to “withdraw their proposal to close the centre”, which they argue is used by over 1,200 people each week.

Addressing the petitioners, council leader Jas Athwal insisted that “no decision has been made” but did not explain why users of the centre have been asked to leave.

Cllr Athwal claimed the council would consider the future of the centre “very, very diligently”.

Speaking for the centre’s users, 17-year-old Finlay Collins said the centre should be kept open as it is a “lifeline for many”.

He added; “We acknowledge the significant funding gap caused by years of austerity of budget cuts by the government, but it is important that this be kept non-political.

“There are lives at stake or are going to be severely impacted if our centre is closed.

“We are keen to engage with the council and we believe alternative funding streams can be secured with time – hence why we are asking for a 12-month moratorium. “

He also pointed out that one of Redbridge’s recent crime commission’s recommendations was to “increase youth services”.

The council says Elmcroft Avenue building – which contains a main hall, sports hall, and recording studio – is “old” and could be “unsafe without significant investment”.

It estimates that renovation will cost “upwards of £2.4million” and take at least 18 months but that any on-site redevelopment would be expected to contain a “community space”.

According to Redbridge Council, keeping the centre costs about £86,000 per year but “much of the building” has reached the end of its life, including the heating system, roofs, toilets and showers.

However, Redbridge denies the campaign group’s suggestion that the building – managed by council-owned leisure arm Vision RCL – has been deliberately “neglected and run down”, arguing there has been “regular ongoing maintenance” as well as urgent repair work following flooding last summer.

Conservative leader Paul Canal urged the council to speak “honestly and transparently” with centre users.

He added: “Residents do have faith in us as councillors… and they are pragmatic people, they do understand that we have challenges.

“It’s unfortunate that you gave notice to people and then ran a consultation.”

Deputy leader Kam Rai, who oversees finance and leisure facilities, pointed out that the centre no longer has youth services which have been “decimated” under austerity.

He added: “I wish there still was but there isn’t – it’s currently used by people who book it in.

“There’s value in there don’t get me wrong but it isn’t a youth centre any more.”

The Labour group finished the debate by voting for a motion that offered to develop a “comprehensive directory” that would give residents easy access to organisations, clubs and activities.

However, campaigners leaving the town hall told the Local Democracy Reporting Service they felt disappointed with the result and unclear what the outcome of the debate had been.

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Josh Mellor

Local Democracy Reporter