Wanstead Youth Centre should remain open for the next 12 months while alternative sources of funding for its future could be explored, campaigners have said.
At a packed public meeting with council officers at the Elmcroft Avenue centre, the speed of the closure process was strongly criticised.
Jon Gritten, who spoke for the Save Wanstead Youth Centre campaign, said: “Three months from the start of the consultation to the proposed date of closure is just appalling.”
Redbridge Vision is planning to close the centre on April 30, having announced its plan at the end of January. The final decision will have to be taken by the council cabinet.
The plan is based on a report which says £2.4m of improvements are needed at the site, and that an £86,000 annual subsidy is needed from other Vision activities – such as leisure centres – to cover running its costs.
Mark Baigent, Redbridge’s corporate director of regeneration and culture, said that if the council decided to borrow the necessary funding, it would cost the council £160,000 per year for 40 years to pay the loan off. And even if the investment were to be made, the centre would still need to be closed temporarily while the work was done.
“There isn’t an option where we just keep the building open and not do the work,” he said, though he did confirm that the building was currently safe.
The centre is currently used by a wide range of sporting activities for children and young people, and also has community facilities for disabled people and other groups. Campaigners say 1,200 people use the centre each week.
Many campaigners spoke of the impact closure would have on users’ wellbeing.
Eileen Flinter of the Wanstead Society said children deserved a place where they could be safe. “Our community and our children deserve better than the underpass,” she said, referring to the nearby M11/A406.
One centre user, Ellie, 15, asked: “Is the mental health of the young people who use the centre being taken into account?” She said warnings were constantly being given to her generation about the dangers of county line gangs, exploitation and poor mental health. “This is one of the few places that holds our society together,” she said.
Mark Baigent said notes of the meeting would be included in the report which would be considered by the council cabinet. But Jon Gritten said there had been no proper consultation by the council, and that the meeting had only taken place because campaigners had organised it. Redbridge and Vision had not even conducted a cost benefit analysis of the proposal. “It’s false economies,” he said.
He said the council should call a 12-month moratorium on the plan while the true cost could be assessed, and while users of the centre could be engaged in finding ways to improve its financial standing.
Keith Prince, Greater London Assembly member for Havering and Redbridge, said if there was any question about how valued the centre was by the community, the number of people attending the meeting showed the answer. He called on the council to engage with the campaigners and said the cost of a child “going off the rails” was going to be a lot more than £100,000.
To accusations that the council stood to make money by selling the centre for development, Mr Baigent said no valuation of the site had been conducted. He also said that the council was prepared to consider looking for grant funding to renovate the centre, but that in the council’s experience there would not be sufficient funding available. He also said that in his experience the consultation period was “ample”.
The decline in funding for the council meant it “had to make some very difficult decisions,” he said.