Judge orders council to consult

24th September 2004 at 01:00
Voluntary groups face uncertain future amid fears for community relations in Leicester. Steve Hook reports

A High Court ruling has forced a city council to carry on funding voluntary community centres after it tried to withdraw cash from them without proper consultation.

A judicial review has brought a stay of execution for six groups whose activities include providing education for Leicester's expanding ethnic-minority adult population.

It found that Leicester city council's consultation failed to give the groups the information they needed to challenge the pound;1.5 million cuts.

The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education this week warned that such cuts could undermine the Government's attempt to increase the number of adults entering education.

Alan Tuckett, its director, said: "You can't reach the community properly unless the community has a sense of ownership, and that has to come from effective partnerships. That's what's really worrying about this. We don't see lifelong learning as an optional service."

Mr Justice Silber, who carried out the review, said: "The six decision letters (withdrawing funding) have to be quashed because of the failure of the council to consult properly with the six voluntary organisations." He said the council must consult again if the cash is to be withdrawn.

The consultation affected 40 organisations but the council says funding will only continue for those that brought the case.

The six include The Shree Sanatan community project, which has 600 Asian members. Shilen Pattni, a manager at the project, says education makes up 90 per cent of its work, with an emphasis on basic skills and English language training.

He said: "We have won, but we still don't know what that means. We are surviving from month to month not knowing whether we will lose our funding."

Malti Sokhi, who runs the St Gabriel's Community Centre, another of the six, said it has already lost students and staff because of funding uncertainty.

The council's education scrutiny committee rejected the cuts unanimously but its ruling cabinet is determined to press on with them.

Ross Willmott, chairman of the committee and opposition Labour group leader, claimed the cuts could undermine community relations in the city.

He said: "In a few years' time, there will be some trouble. There won't be any groups to go to. The council will have destroyed the community structure."

Roger Blackmore, leader of the council, stressed that this year it had set aside pound;700,000 for community cohesion, although this will be reduced to pound;100,000 next year. He added: "We believe that the groups fully understood why we were proposing to cease their funding, especially as the matter had attracted a great deal of local publicity. However, we will now undertake fresh consultation."

He described the faults highlighted by the judge as "technical" and criticised him for taking too long to reach a decision.

The cuts are being enforced despite a recent inspectors' report which said too few of Leicester's large ethnic-minority population is in education.

An Adult Learning Inspectorate report said: "Too much of the learning material used in performing arts and English for speakers of other languages is based on European traditions."

As well as funding the centres, the council, run by a coalition of Liberal Democrats and Tories, must pay legal costs. The review has already cost it more than pound;202,000, including the costs of continuing to fund the centres.

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