Nine months after the dramatic closure of a hub for arts groups and charities in north west Leeds, the search for answers continues as the aftershocks of its loss are felt. Jonathan Brown reports.
As demolition looms over a once buzzing centre for the arts, questions still remain over the controversial closure of the West Park Centre.
After it closed as West Park County Secondary School in 1989, the building became an unorthodox but fitting home to dozens of Leeds’s most creative and artistic groups and charities.
Thousands of the city’s most talented groups have roots there and it provided a base for the likes of Opera North and the Northern Ballet.
Years of rumours of impending closure and numerous campaigns had kept it open until it was hastily closed in November because of electrical problems.
Yet, the following day, a party attended by the then Lord Mayor of Leeds, Coun Ann Castle, was held at the site.
The swift closure, which was carried out within 24 hours of officers being alerted to the building’s safety, left several arts groups and charities effectively homeless.
Nine months on, the Yorkshire Association for Music and Special Educational Needs (YAMSEN) is just one of a group of organisations without a place to call home and deliver services.
Diane Paterson, secretary of YAMSEN, a charity that supports music groups for disabled adults and children, said: “It’s been devastating.
“We won’t let things stop, we have carried on as that’s the nature of the group of people we have here.
“When somebody does that to you and pulls the plug on you – you can’t plan for that.
“None of the charities are the sort of people that will be put off by this, they are just working ten times as hard and getting more stressed.”
Its thousands of users come from all over the region to use the 34-year-old charity’s specialist equipment – much of which is now inaccessible and based in storage units and schools across the city.
YAMSEN spent thousands of pounds of grant money on an Indonesian gamelan instrument, which was handmade in Java, to help with sensory sessions in 2008, while they installed an advanced sound and light room at the West Park Centre. Both have ended up dismantled in storage as a result of the closure.
Victoria Jaquiss, vice chair at YAMSEN, said: “I think it makes Leeds look stupid, we have a big new arena so we are catering for the top end but we do not cater for the people that have given their evenings away for free.”
Elsewhere Fiona Kirkby, choir coordinator at the celebrated 150-piece Leeds Festival Chorus, says the group was left homeless three weeks before it was due to perform in the council-organised Leeds International Concert Season.
Now based at St Chad’s Parish Church, in Headingley, the choir is having to cope without the space it needs.
Fiona, who has worked with the choir for 30 years, said: “We are resourceful people so we will try and keep on going but we are facing uncertain times.”
Groups based at the centre were initially told it would close temporarily for four months, while the associated costs and work to bring it back into use were assessed.
In January councillors were told that emergency work on the West Park Centre’s electrical and hot and cold water systems, would cost more than £930,000.
Lorraine Cowburn is a musician and project manager with the Musical Arc charity, which was moved to Meanwood Community Centre within four days of the West Park Centre’s closure.
Following the outcry surrounding its closure, the circumstances and processes behind it will be discussed by the council’s sustainable economy and culture scrutiny board on September 17.
Lorraine, who plans to attend the meeting, said: “It’s like rehousing a family in different houses, it doesn’t work and that community of people that formed the West Park Centre happened by accident over the years. It ended up being an arts centre and that’s what’s been lost.”
The council’s executive board agreed to demolish the centre in July, having agreed to release £800,000 from the sale of the land to build a new community centre or invest in existing buildings to aid some of the centre’s former users if needed.
No date for the West Park Centre’s demolition has yet been set.
It is thought the land is worth around £2m and it is suggested it could be developed for housing or a free school, though further assurances are being sought over the council’s plans to continue to help former users.
Leeds North West MP Greg Mulholland said: “The West Park Centre has been a popular and vital cultural and community hub for many years and it is simply not acceptable that this important role comes to an end, especially when there simply are not adequate replacement facilities for the organisations who used the centre or the local community.”
Coun Judith Chapman (Lib Dem, Weetwood) described the closure of the centre as the “end of an era”. She said: “It’s putting a bit of strain on all the area’s other venues.
“People have lost this facility which is a terrible shame and also it was used for community purposes as well and that has gone.”
Various charities and organisations formerly based at the centre are working from home, halls, community centres and scout huts.
A council spokeswoman said: “We have already ensured that the great majority of groups have been re-located to other locations and we will be working with any other groups that used the centre to help them find new permanent locations.”
The spokeswoman added: “A great deal of work has taken place since the West Park Centre was closed in November to determine the best option for the site and the centre. We have listened to a wide range of views and considered all possible options.”