'Hands off' warning to council after temporary takeover of Houghton Regis community centre for education needs

'You'll touch that building, which we worked so hard to develop to provide the town with a decent facility, at your peril.'

Wednesday, 13th October 2021, 11:23 am
Updated Wednesday, 13th October 2021, 11:24 am

A former Central Bedfordshire councillor has warned the local authority to keep its "hands off" a community centre in Houghton Regis, which is being temporarily used for education purposes.

Several local clubs have been "forced to mothball" as the building was given over to special educational needs teaching after a provider went into administration, a Central Bedfordshire Council executive meeting heard on October 12.

Independent alternative schooling operator Develop Dunstable became insolvent earlier this year, so Central Bedfordshire College agreed to provide a suitable replacement at Bedford Square Community Centre in Houghton Regis.

Bedford Square Community Centre site and, inset, the former Develop Dunstable premises in Edward Street (Google)

Houghton Regis town councillor Tracey McMahon presented a petition, saying: "I'm here to demand CBC reverses its arbitrarily taken decision to close our community centre for the majority of users, rebrand it as a learning hub and give the management over to Central Beds College.

"There was no consultation with the community, the stakeholders, the users or councillors. You wonder why we're so aggrieved. I'm staggered you were so surprised by this outcome.

"Sadly several of our clubs have been forced to mothball as they can't find suitable alternative accommodation for their needs because of cost, size and time availability.

"Your actions are in complete contradiction to your own constitution and fall foul of the 2010 Equality Act.

"The choice of eating or heating isn't just a sound bite. It's the reality of many in our community, and this premises supports those people."

The ex-Liberal Democrat Parkside councillor Dr Rita Egan said: "I'm here for one reason to stop this ridiculous consultation you plan to engage in.

"It's misguided, divisive, poorly thought through and most importantly unnecessary. You've a petition of more than 100 people who've told you 'We want the status quo'.

"I want to know why you want to do a consultation because I smell a rat. The only reason is you've got something else in mind for this venue.

"What are you up to? Hands off," warned Dr Egan, who represented CBC for ten years and served as a town councillor.

"You'll touch that building, which we worked so hard to develop to provide the town with a decent facility, at your peril."

Conservative Dunstable Watling councillor Eugene Ghent replied: "In July, we announced this centre would host an education provision for vulnerable young people from September.

"I understand the anger and frustration this decision caused your community and apologise for this.

"The current arrangement with the college is only until July 2022. We'll soon be consulting over the longer-term use."

Executive member for housing and assets councillor Ghent told the committee that "70 vulnerable young people unsuited to mainstream education" were put at risk of losing their learning programme.

"The previous provider's venue wasn't available to us," he explained. "And we considered some other options which were unsuitable or unavailable.

"There was a suggestion previously this was a cynical money-making exercise. I want to be clear the focus was to provide an urgent response to need.

"The premises is available in the evenings, at weekends and the school holidays, so isn't closed to the public.

"I haven't been told of any groups forced to fold because of this dual use of the centre. This isn't a change of use of the venue," he added.

"The original planning consent allowed community and education uses. The college is covering the running costs for its use and we're not charging a rent.

"We're focusing on a consultation to begin shortly, with the results considered by the executive in February and a report brought to corporate resources overview and scrutiny (committee) in January."