Talking Point: Should public services be volunteer-run?

Bramley Baths
Bramley Baths
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The Friends of Bramley Baths are among several volunteer groups who have been given the green-light to run what were previously local authority services, to save them from closure. Grant Woodward, Rod McPhee and Neil Hudson ask whether it’s right that voluntary groups should step in when councils cut spending.

PUDSEY’S Conservative MP Stuart Andrew is a keen supporter of the idea.

“Where we’ve got difficult financial times, if there is another way of running services and keeping them open then that can only be a good thing.

“The Government has to find the savings to bring the deficit down which isn’t going to be easy.

“Something run by the local community will be more responsive to the needs of that community and hopefully generate greater support – and where financial support might not be available to them then hopefully advice will be.

“Some of the most innovative ideas about running places come from people who haven’t been asked to do it before but know the gaps that exist within their own community and its services.

“The Rawdon Library group were talking about reading clubs for children and making rooms available for hire. These are new ideas that make it more relevant to that community.

“Not all services are going to be able to be run this way, but where there’s a practical way of providing community-led services organisations then it should definitely be explored.”

Chris Jenkinson, of UNISON in Yorkshire and Humberside, said: “Bramley Baths is a vital public service. People of all ages, especially children, need it. It brings enormous health and social benefits.

“The Friends of Bramley Baths have fought to keep it open for the best intentions but UNISON has warned from the start David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ was a cynical attempt to mask the damage done by public sector cuts.

“There’s no army of volunteers to plug the gap left by axing thousands of front-line public jobs.

“The volunteers are people who are either losing their jobs in massive cuts, or their businesses because they no longer have customers.

“The domino effect devastates local economies like ours as services are destroyed. Our battle is to protect jobs and fight for proper services.

“There is a deep crisis in the public sector as the Government’s hopelessly wrong austerity policy keeps us in recession and destroys economies.

“We are pleased Bramley Baths has been saved but what needs to be urgently addressed is why this crisis came about – reckless and savage Government cuts.”

Coun Adam Ogilvie is Leeds City Council’s executive member for leisure, the department which has just handed over running of the libraries and the baths to volunteer groups.

“The truth is that people having been doing things like this for years – and it will go on happening too. I don’t think most people even know what the ‘Big Society’ is. A better model is something like John Lewis where employees have real ownership over the organisation. This is similar in that it gives the service users control.

“The fact is that we’re being forced to look at the way we deliver services and there’s no doubt there’s going be more pressure as cuts come in over the next few years. It’s all a learning process, but there’s a process in place for groups taking over services and that acts as a filter, as quality control. I’ve met the Friends of Bramley Baths and I have to say the commitment from them is amazing and their business plan very detailed.

“We have always said that the baths will stay open and I’m sure the Friends will do their best, but we all recognise that ultimately we (the council) have a responsibility.”

Fran Graham is a member of the Friends of Bramley Baths, the group which has taken over running of the pool from Leeds City Council.

She said: “It’s a very big question, we will definitely need the support of the community to make it work. The council have been very open indeed in terms of supporting us and I think the officers did everything they could before they made the decision to scale down the hours but they are facing some very tough decisions, cut-backs have to be made, that’s a reality we have to accept.

“I don’t think it’s a solution which could be adopted everywhere, as it’s a risk for them as well, in a sense they are taking a gamble on us running it.

“There are other examples of services being run by volunteers, including a swimming baths in Chapeltown, which has been up and running for two years.

“It’s not simply a case of the council handing services over if they think they can save money – there has to be a huge amount of effort put in by members of the community and I think we have proved we have that.”

Sue Buckle is a member of the Royal Park Community Consortium which is trying to save the Hyde Park school for public use.

“Our own experience has been a difficult one, but it’s desirable for local people to run these things because they have a much deeper and more accurate knowledge of the local area and its issues.

“These buildings may be owned by the council but the council is meant to be serving the public and so council money should be made available to help.

“When Royal Park School closed there were local groups that wanted to go in and use it straight away and they were told they couldn’t unless they came up with £500,000 for refurbishments.

“If the council had provided that money the building would never have got in the state it has and the community would have had the last eight years of using it and an awful lot of anguish and time, not to mention local people’s expense, would have been saved.

“The whole thing with Royal Park is that costs have mounted up, particularly the cost of refurbishment.

“It was £500,000 to get it up and running back in 2005 and the official figure now being quoted is over £3m, although we still have hopes of getting it back into use.”

Stephanie Burras runs the not-for-profit Leeds Ahead organisation which brings businesses together to tackle social problems in the city.

“There are two sides to this. You have to accept that it’s being led by a reduction in public funds and that’s a regrettable state of affairs. There’s also a concern about the viability of new enterprises. None of these transfers of public services into community ownership should be done in a rushed or ill-thought out way. The sustainability of these services should be at the heart of any proposals which are considered. It needs careful planning, testing and they should not just jump in with both feet.

“Having said that, I do actually think that it’s a good thing and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that where people are more involved in devising, developing and running local community services those services are more used, more appropriate, more appreciated, nurtured and well looked after. So, the public funding cuts have precipitated a shift which could prove to be a move in the right direction, but it’s very important that we look at what skills and support the volunteers need to ensure their services are successful.”

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