Conservative councillors arriving at Hammersmith Town Hall for last night's cabinet meeting were greeted by camera crews and an angry throng protesting against the sale of key community buildings. But the huge turnout did not deter them from pressing ahead with the plans, which some believe threaten the 'big society' that is already up and running in the borough. DAN HODGES reports
Cabinet meetings in Hammersmith are often blink-and-you'll-miss-it affairs, as councillors take minutes to nod through each item of business with a simple, collective 'agreed'.
Such a speedy run-through was made impossible last night, however, by a hall full of people firing a barrage of questions at members over their plan to sell a number of prominent community buildings.
Placard-waving protesters came in droves, in support of a wide range of groups under threat – ballet-dancing children who rely on the open space of Shepherd's Bush Village Hall, Sands End residents who fear the impact the loss of their community centre will have on the neighbourhood, volunteers from community organisations based at Palingswick House, which will be be emptied out to make way for the West London Free School, and many others.
To the beat of supportive drums they staged a demonstration outside the town hall while TV crews filmed the events, including a BBC Newsnight team, who filed a report questioning the government's ability to deliver on its 'big society' pledge when Tory councils such as Hammersmith and Fulham are getting rid of the infrastructure which supports it.
The council says the building sale will raise £20 million and is necessary to pay off debt without bringing in cuts to services, and that organisations which lose their homes will be able to apply for space in one of three smaller community hubs, one of which, in the Edward Woods Estate in Shepherd's Bush, is nearing completion. But another in Dawes Road, Fulham, is thought to be more than a year away, and the third, at the soon-to-be extended Lyric theatre in Hammersmith, is only in the early stages of negotiation.
Before addressing the demonstrators, Hammersmith MP Andy Slaughter said: "These are the people who they say don't exist, from the 'underused' buildings that they say are a drain on the local budget and community. There are hundreds of groups who use these buildings and they're not being offered any alternative, they're just being chucked out on the street."
He added: "The big society is a big joke."
With the meeting in session, council leader Stephen Greenhalgh invited community members and Labour councillors to speak in turn and ask dozens of questions in succession before any answers would be offered.
Anna du Boisson, director of the West London School of Dance, told councillors that Shepherd's Bush Village Hall is essential to the success of her business and to the future of the talented children who pass through its doors.
"It was a Conservative Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, who deplored selling off the family silver, and I wish to argue that the village hall is a precious and shining example of the borough's heritage," she said.
She added: "Give us a chance to make this historic hall a centre of excellence, a centre the council can be proud of. The government is talking about the big society - we are the big society."
Hilda McCafferty, of the Irish Cultural Centre, pleaded with the council to honour a promise made last year that it would extend the lease on the building when it expires next March, giving managers a realistic amount of time to raise the cash needed to buy it.
"We believe it's both unfair and unreasonable to expect the centre to raise funds of between £1m and £2m in one year, especially in the current climate," she said. "If the building is put up for sale before the centre has had the chance to raise the funds to buy it, all that we have achieved will be lost to the borough forever."
Nicholas Waldemar Brown, representing the Save Sands End Community Centre Action Group, argued that the council should 'look further than its balance sheet' in deciding what should be sold.
"The damage caused by closing Sands End Community Centre would cost much, much more than the trifling amount to be gained by its sale," he said.
Mr Waldemar Brown added that developers had come forward with an offer to buy the building and retain some community use, urging the council to consider that offer seriously and to remember that it is 'merely the custodian' of the site.
Labour leader Stephen Cowan clashed with Mr Greenhalgh over the format of the meeting after the council leader did not offer answers to a series of specific questions about aspects of the building sale.
Asking whether an audit had been undertaken to examine exactly which services might be affected, Mr Cowan said: "I don't believe you've carried out an audit, and I believe a lot of those services will be lost, and the people of this borough will be worse off as a consequence."
Responding to the battery of accusations put forward by protesters and political opponents, cabinet members insisted that their unanimous decision to agree to sell the buildings did not mean there would be a rush to dispose of them, and that work would continue to see if some of the affected groups could raise the funds needed to take over the sites.
Mr Greenhalgh said: "The decision gives us a right to sell the properties, but what we will not contemplate as an administration is a firesale, putting them all up for auction next month. I make a personal commitment that we will continue to work with people to continue their service."
Joe Carlebach, the council's community care spokesman, said he had met a number of groups who he hoped would be able to raise the money needed to buy their buildings, and offered to use his fundraising experience to help those groups find the cash they needed.