Upton downs

8 Jun

That the leaders of Newham council are arrogant, duplicitous and contemptuous of residents will not come as news to most people. But it is rare that their cynical manipulation of the public for their own ends is quite so fully documented as it is in the case of the Upton Centre.

The centre was closed in December 2014

…after specialist engineers advised that the boilers were no longer compliant and the heating system could not be used. Following the closure, a review of the building has been carried out by independent surveyors and engineers who have established that a significant amount of work would be needed to bring the centre back in to use in the short term, including an overhaul of the heating system as well as a complete rewiring of the electrical system.

Works which would extend the life of the centre by 12 to 24 months are estimated to cost £750,000. Refurbishment to the whole building, which would make it accessible and fit for community use for an additional 15 to 20 years would be in the region of £3.5million.

In April 2015 the council started a “consultation” on the future of the centre. This was clearly rigged to deliver the answer Sir Robin and his chums want to hear – that the centre should be closed and the site handed over for redevelopment.

Perhaps a predictable piece of opportunism in response to an unexpected event? Not at all. A report has emerged that shows this to have been planned down to the finest detail.

That report was written in September 2013 by Graeme Betts, then Newham’s Executive Director for Strategic Commissioning and Community, for a meeting of the now defunct Operational Executive. Mike Law has tried unsuccessfully to extract details of this secretive committee via Freedom of Information requests. According to the replies he got, it is not in the public interest to reveal what was discussed and, in any case, the meetings were not minuted and no record of attendance was ever kept.

The aim of Mr Betts’ report was

…to update Members on progress and timescales for the possible closure of the Upton Centre and to secure possession of the One Love centre in the context of a wider development proposal for the site.

As previously reported there are three issues officers are progressing:

  1. The possible closure of Upton Centre as the level of investment required to maintain a safe and reliable service is unaffordable;
  2. Securing vacant possession of the whole site to allow for a future development; 
  3. Regularising occupation of One Love to ensure it does not affect future development options for the Council.

Having considered the options officers are proposing the following recommendations, subject to Member agreement:

  • If there is unscheduled breakdown of boiler or plant the Upton will be closed whilst officers seek to necessary resources to carry out repair
  • the nursery, within the Upton centre would be provided with temporary heating and access to the site to ensure they can continue to deliver services
  • officers seek to secure 2 year “lease” with 2 year development break clause to ensure vacant possession of the site is obtained
  • officers to continue to work on development options with members prior to a wider consultation on the options with the wider community

With a plan in place to close the centre, the council could then move onto to what it wanted to do with the site. Mr Betts sets out “an initial exploration of the redevelopment option”:

The assumptions as to the potential mix of uses on the redeveloped site are:

  • 44 private residential units (10 x 1 bed flats, 12 x 2 bed flats, 8 x 3 bed flats, 6 x 2 bed houses, 8 x 3 bed houses)
  • 0 affordable housing units (0%)
  • 300 sqm NIA nursery
  • 512 sqm NIA community centre 

The report evaluates three options for how this might be achieved, the last of which is the council doing the work itself via its ‘private rental vehicle’, now known as Red Doors Ventures. This was judged to be riskier, but offered the council the best return and greater control in delivering the project quickly.

All that remained then was to convince the public that this was all in their best interests. The section of the report dealing with ‘Communications Considerations’ is worth quoting at length:

…there needs to be clear and simple messaging around how and why decisions have been made about the centre and future steps. The closure of any community facility is always sensitive and its users and the wider community need to feel they have been kept informed and been part of the process. A key lesson learned from the decision to develop Atherton was the need to have coherent messages to develop the wider community understanding of the council’s vision and also to ensure the council could demonstrate openness in its decision making.  

Once future plans for the Upton Centre are determined, all communications would include reference to the development options and, if appropriate, residents and users invited to input into these options.  

If a decision is made to close the facility due to unscheduled maintenance, communications would focus on the following messages:

  • Financial state of local government finance means Newham has to make tough decisions
  • No final decisions about the site have been made and Newham will consult with residents as options are developed
  • The condition of the building is in a significant state of disrepair
  • There are a range of other facilities that people can access

Unless critical to the timeline for the future of the site, it would be unwise to begin proactive communications regarding the closure of the centre until the future of the site as a whole has been determined. This would avoid creating any unnecessary concern for users. However reactive messages would need to be prepared should the information become public.

The cynicism is breathtaking – don’t tell residents anything until future plans for the site are determined; then tell them no final decisions have been taken. The consultation process is a fig-leaf to persuade residents that they have been kept informed and part of the process.

In the end the boilers at the Upton Centre declined to play their part and failed to ‘unexpectedly’ break down. So the council got in some ‘specialist consultants’ to tell them they were no longer safe or compliant, necessitating the shut down of the heating system and the closure of the centre. That this happened in the middle of winter is no coincidence.

When the outcome of the consultation is published there will be no surprises. The recommendation will be for the Upton Centre to be torn down and replaced with housing for private rent at full market rates. There will be no social housing on the site. And precious little for the local community.

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One Response to “Upton downs”

  1. Sarah Ruiz June 8, 2015 at 17:01 #

    Even for Newham this is breathtaking, but the plans to close the Upton Centte have been on the cards for even longer. I remember when I was a Cllr there was an attempt, by trying to bully the staff into resigning, they then realised they ere council employees and their bullying didn’t work as the union got involved.
    Although I don’t readily agree with community centres being used by one specific community. The Hindu community have used this centre for as long as I can remember, but because they tend to be fairly passive then this is what theCouncil thinks it can do. Shameful

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