Hackney Council is consulting on a new policy for hiring out estate community halls. This might not seem the biggest issue in a world of capitalist triumphalism and reactionary revivalism, but it's going to have an impact on working-class communities, so read on.
Until now, Tenants' and Residents' Associations (TRAs) have drafted their own hiring policies, which the Council endorses (or otherwise). As far as I can see, the system works fine, it's not broken and not in need of fixing. But now the Council wants to take over and set the hire charges itself. Here are the main problems with the proposals:
- Residents could no longer use their estate's community hall free of charge for private events such as kids’ birthday parties. Since we set up our TRA five years ago, we have allowed residents free use of the hall for private social functions. Lots of people on this estate live in small flats without gardens, and can't afford to pay for a commercial venue. The availability of the community hall makes it possible for kids to have decent birthday parties, and extended families to gather together for celebrations, who would not otherwise be able to - they would have to pay a charge of around £50. What sort of Scrooge would want to do that?
- On top of that, anyone booking a 'one-off' event (including the aforementioned residents) would have to pay a £150 deposit, only refundable a week after the event. Little Johnny won't be having a party this year, then. What sort of cash-flow does the Council think that its tenants have?!?
- Groups booking the hall would also have to pay more. Our community hall is currently used for regular meetings by, amongst others, the Hackney branch of the London Cycling Campaign and Hackney TUC. The new rules would mean the hire charge more than doubling.
- The draft new policy makes TRAs pay utility bills, where previously these have been paid by the Council.
- The policy specifies that the only people who can use community halls for free are ... councillors! I have no problem with councilllors booking community halls for Council business such as Estate Committees and surgeries. But I don't see why the TRA should pay for the electricity they use!
- The policy commits the TRA to reporting health and safety problems to the council (fair enough), but does not appear to commit the Council to repairing them!
- The policy ties TRA officers up in a lot of bureaucracy and footwork.
I'm pondering as to why Hackney Council wants to introduce such a policy. As I said at the start, I don't see a problem with the current system. And, apart from relieving itself of the lecky bill, the Council won't even be making money by trousering the extra hire charge income (if indeed there is extra income, which there might not be - hirers may just go elsewhere).
The effects of the policy will be to:
- reduce the level of service that TRAs provide to their residents
- exacerbate the shortage of affordable venues for hire in non-licensed premises and thus make life harder for community and campaigning groups
- make TRA reps spend more time on bureaucracy and therefore less time representing residents.
In the absence of any other explanation, I can only assume that this is what the Council wants.
The othe plausible explanation is that this is an ideologically-driven attempt to marketise a community facility. A couple of years ago, the Council floated the idea of forcing TRAs to charge 'market rates' for hall hire - perhaps this is that policy reborn. Or perhaps they are just control freaks.
Why should the hire charges cover the running costs?
Why can't the Council pay the running costs and allow the TRA to manage it as it sees fit (subject, of course, to reasonable safeguards against corruption etc)?
Tenants and residents already pay into the Council's coffers through rent, service charges, Council Tax, parking permit fees etc etc, and - in Hackney at least - a 10p per week 'Tenants' Levy' that is distributed amongst TRAs.
A community hall - and its free availability to residents - should be seen as a facility. If we accept that it has to be 'self-financing', then if the hire income dries up, then the Council could shut it down and how could we object?
But up til now, the Council has met the running costs and the TRA has levied the hire charges and kept the money.
I'd like to keep it like that.