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Locals fight for youth centre

Steve Hook reports on the battle between council officials and residents over a community centre in inner-city Leicester

The slogan on the front page of the Highfields community association newsletter says: "If anyone can, Highfields can."

But it is feared that Leicester city council has other ideas.

The association claims its plans to take over control of Highfields youth and community centre are being killed off by city officials.

Community association members and their supporters marched through the streets of Highfields, one of the city's most deprived areas, on Saturday in protest against the council's plans for the centre.

They are also calling for the reinstatement of Priya Thamotheram, the centre's manager who has been told his post is being made redundant and whose plight has come to symbolise the campaign.

The association says it won a commitment from Leicestershire county council to allow the community association to run HYCC, which is in an area of the city with an ethnic-minority population of 85 per cent.

This commitment, it says, has been broken by the city council, the unitary authority that owns the centre and employs the staff, including lecturers and youth workers.

The association has raised more than pound;4 million since 1996 in partnership with the council to extend the building. There were hopes that the centre would be an oasis within the surrounding inner-city sprawl, which includes a tower block estate.

There was a pound;2m award from lottery funds, pound;1m from the Learning and Skills Council, pound;500,000 from the East Midlands Development Agency and pound;811,000 of European cash.

The association says the city council put in pound;300,000 although, it claims, it then charged pound;400,000 in consultancy fees for its role in the building work.

The centre also applied for pound;500,000 from the European Social Fund with four grant applications through the Learning and Skills Council.

These bids were blocked when John Crookes, the city council's service director for lifelong learning and community development, wrote to the LSC.

Mr Crookes told the LSC the community centre had failed to get his approval for the application, "in contravention of the procedures of the (city council's) education and lifelong learning department."

The letter went on to tell the LSC that if Highfields went to the next stage of the application process, it should be assumed that this was not supported by the city council.

Mr Crookes told FE Focus the council insists on being informed of bids in case they lead to activities that draw it into financial commitments for which it has not budgeted.

He said: "All managers were informed of this requirement."

There is a city-wide campaign against the council's wider "divisional organisational review", of youth and community work, which has seen staff made redundant or moved around the city.

Russ Escritt, a regional official for Natfhe, the lecturers' union, which has members at Highfields, is calling for the centre to be excluded from the city council's review.

Mr Escritt said: "I believe they have put in place structures designed to undermine community control.

"I do think Priya has been victimised and the structure has been designed in such a way as to take out certain people who are seen as being problems for the authority. Not just Priya. Other people as well."

When an ethnic disturbance broke out near the Highfields centre recently, Mr Thamotheram was soon able to identify the culprits through his contacts.

Within days, they had agreed to come to the centre for a "mediation session". Amidst the swearing, peace was restored, an achievement that the community association says was only possible because of Mr Thamotheram's style of management.

Adam Edwards, an academic who until recently was chairman of the community association, said: "The council uses the expression 'community cohesion', but you only get that from the community itself. You can't just impose it.

"Priya is eloquent and charismatic. He has done much to work with different groups and make connections with community leaders."

Mr Crookes said: "We recognise the aspirations of the association for some form of community governance.

"We are now proposing to set up a partnership board and appoint a temporary partnership project manager to develop community governance options.

"There were no assumptions made that control of the centre would be handed over to the community.

"The intention of the council was to run the scheme as a council project and to work in partnership with the community association to deliver high-quality lifelong learning and sports services in this disadvantaged part of the city," said Mr Crookes.

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