Few people currently working in Hammersmith and Fulham – whether for the council, the voluntary sector or the many private businesses in the borough – can be under any illusion about the scale of public spending cuts now looming.
Pressure from the new government to find savings and cut costs mean all local authorities are looking for creative ways to do more with less, and our Conservative-controlled borough is seen as one of the vanguards of that change.
Outsourcing of services and the merging of departments with other authorities are ideas which have been pioneered here, and last week the council announced its latest plan - to raise £20 million by selling off some of the most significant buildings in its property portfolio.
Fulham Town Hall is up for grabs by the highest bidder, as is the Irish Cultural Centre, Palingswick House in King Street, currently home to 21 community organisations, and at least six other smaller buildings deemed to be either underused or surplus to requirements.
The Tory administration says it is faced with a stark choice of selling buildings or cutting services, preferring the first option.
But at the same time, it has revealed which voluntary organisations' funding bids for the coming year have been successful – and many of those groups now set to lose their homes say they have lost out.
Defending the sale of public buildings, more of which are due to be announced later in the year, council leader Stephen Greenhalgh said it is one of many 'tough decisions' necessary to adjust to government cuts and reduce the borough's £133 million debt.
"All indications are that we will have to reduce our spending by around £55 million over the next three years," he said.
"We have stated very publicly that our focus will be on selling our assets to protect services. We have to put people before buildings and safeguard as much of our budget as possible for voluntary sector grants, child protection and services for the elderly."
One of the groups affected is Hammersmith and Fulham Action on Disability, which promotes equality for disabled people in the borough.
HAFAD currently occupies one of the buildings up for sale, the Greswell Street Centre in Fulham, and may be offered new premises at the White City Collaborative Care Centre. But it is also set to have applications for more than £200,000 turned down by the council in the next round of voluntary sector funding, when the allocations are rubber-stamped by cabinet later this month.
HAFAD chair Maria Brenton said: "We've been expecting it for some time so it's no shock.
"We're reassured that we won't be moved out of the building until they find us somewhere to move into, and we have to work with them constructively.
"The trouble is that it's really difficult to find a building in Hammersmith with the space that we need. We would be happy to tap into the centre at White City because that's where a lot of our service users are from.
"We'd rather buildings get rationalised than front-line services get cut."
Others are more fearful about the combined impact of building sales and funding cuts to organisations housed within them, such as at Palingswick House, which contains groups ranging from the the Kurdish Association to the borough's Community Transport Project.
Bruce Marquart, a member of the building's tenants' advisory group, said: "The building being sold was not a surprise – what was a surprise was with the announcement of grants that the borough is putting together. It's pretty obvious that they're not supporting anyone who has a tenancy in the building, who they want to eliminate.
"We understand the logic of that but we don't agree with it."
Andy Slaughter, Labour MP for Hammersmith and former council leader, claimed the Tories are trying to do '100 bad things at once' and 'carving up the voluntary sector'.
"It's pretty clear that all the things that they are doing are things they wanted to do anyway," said Mr Slaughter. "It's pure Thatcherism.
"There's no need for them to sell off Fulham Town Hall this year, as if they've suddenly discovered that the local authority has debt.
"Buildings like the Irish Centre probably have a much smaller value than they would do if they were house or offices, because they have very specific functions. Without spending a lot of money, there's not much other use you can have for them."
Labour opposition leader Stephen Cowan said the council should hold on to assets like Fulham Town Hall until the economy recovers, by which time its sale price may have risen significantly.
He said: "In three or four years it could be worth three times what it is now, because it's a beautiful site.
"Why would the council want to sell off all its capital assets now – it's stupid."
He added: "They're attacking some of the most vulnerable groups in our community – refugees, people in desperate need of legal help and other black and minority ethnic groups. It shows where the council's real prejudices lie."
A consultation on the sale of buildings will run over the summer before any formal decisions are made, but a spokeswoman said the council is 'unabashed' about marketing its properties to attract the highest bidders, and unconcerned about them being retained for public or community use.
Several other potentially lucrative buildings are already on the market, including High Master's House in Hammersmith Road, and work to shrink council services and staff into fewer sites will continue.
The authority has already raised £42 million by selling buildings, reducing its use of space by 40 per cent, and it says it is asking voluntary groups to do the same, squeezing into two new community hubs planned – but not yet built – in the Edward Woods Estate to the north, and on the New Deal for Communities site in Dawes Road, Fulham.
Cllr Greenhalgh said: "The voluntary sector is hugely important in supporting local residents, but in these difficult times we must all do more for less.
"We are asking the voluntary sector to do what the council has already done - to use buildings more effectively and to focus on services rather than bricks and mortar. By moving to community hubs we will be able to provide better, more modern facilities for voluntary organisations under one roof, rather than in expensive, disparate buildings, many of which aren't suitable and have access problems."
REFUGEE GROUPS' FUNDING FEARS
Cuts to funding and the prospect of losing their homes have been described as a 'doubly whammy' which could force some community groups to close altogether.
Hammersmith and Fulham Refugee Forum – described by a spokesman as 'the glue that binds together' the many refugee communities and organisations in the borough, will receive no funding, while many of its member groups will lose their home in Palingswick House.
"These decisions will cause remaining services, including those provided by the council, to become greatly over–stretched, and community cohesion will be badly shaken," said the spokesman.
Eight organisations working with refugees applied for grants from the council for the year ahead and only one of these is recommended for approval.
The refugee forum's management board insisted this week that theirs is the only organisation of its kind in the borough, rejecting the council's argument that similar 'capacity building' and training projects exist elsewhere.
In a joint statement, the board said: "The council does not appear to recognise that the voluntary sector plays a key role in promoting and maintaining community cohesion in this densely populated, ethnically diverse borough.
"Community cohesion does not occur by accident. It has to be fostered and nurtured. If these cuts go through as proposed community cohesion in this borough will be seriously undermined."
The comments were echoed by those at Palingswick House, who are sceptical about the council's ability to supply useful space for voluntary groups elsewhere.
Mr Marquart said he had seen no preparatory work on the sites suggested as alternative hubs, and questioned the wisdom of putting so many buildings up for sale at the same time.
He said: "The problem is that this is going on all over the city – basically, London is up for sale.
"We're afraid that Palingswick House is going to end up a vacant lot or a squat for a long time, when it doesn't have to be that way.
"They could be making an income on it by extending the lease, but the level of engagement is very hierarchical. People are told what to do, and it's a lot like a redundancy exercise in a corporation.
"You have a lot of people who are concerned about their jobs. The people at the top know what they're doing, and the people at the bottom are just trying to survive."
Mr Marquart urged the council to ask groups at Palingswick House to exploit their own international contacts to look for overseas organisations that might be interested in the building.
Joe Carlebach, the council's community services spokesman, said the council has a strong track record in supporting refugee and black and minority ethnic groups, but the focus has to shift to organisations which benefit all residents.
He said: "The council's robust application process ensures that we allocate financial support to those organisations who provide the best services to at the best price for our residents. The council will be putting out a tender for a single 'Voice' network for BME and refugee groups. We believe that this will ensure that their concerns are heard and their aspirations met."
THE ASKHAM CENTRE, SHEPHERD'S BUSH – children's centre to move elsewhere
PALINGSWICK HOUSE, HAMMERSMITH – 21 voluntary sector groups to move to two new community hubs in Shepherd's Bush and Fulham
IRISH CULTURAL CENTRE – talks planned with Irish government to discuss the building's future when the lease expires in 2012
SANDS END COMMUNITY CENTRE – library will close; gym and adult education classes will be moved; children's centre may move to Townmead Road
DISTILLERY LANE, HAMMERSMITH – vacant since after-school service moved to St Paul's Primary in June
GRESWELL STREET CENTRE, FULHAM – Hammersmith and Fulham Action on Disability will move to the new White City Collaborative Care Centre
BULWER STREET, SHEPHERD'S BUSH – Shepherd's Bush Families Project will move to another site; Vietnamese Association may move to Edward Woods Estate; other groups who use the centre would move elsewhere
COMMONWEALTH AVENUE, WHITE CITY – Nubian Life will move elsewhere, or stay put if nowhere else can be found
ALSO TO GO
HAMMERSMITH LIBRARY – will move to a new site in central Hammersmith, building will be used for the expansion of Sacred Heart School
BROADWAY INFORMATION CENTRE, HAMMERSMITH – considered badly located and ill-used, council will discontinue its lease
CAMBRIDGE HOUSE, HAMMERSMITH – council will discontinue its lease
BARCLAY HOUSE, FULHAM - council will discontinue its lease
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