The Kenilworth Centre: John Whitehouse’s open letter to council leader

The Kenilworth Centre
The Kenilworth Centre

Following Kenilworth Town Council’s decision to stop giving the Kenilworth Centre £30,000 a year, chair of trustees at the centre John Whitehouse has written an open letter to town council leader Cllr John Cooke, aiming to address ‘factual inaccuracies’ at the meeting.

Cllr Cooke put forward an alternative proposal to consider an application next year for £7,500 to fund the centre’s youth outreach work, which was backed by 13 councillors.

Here is the letter in its entirety:

To Councillor John Cooke,

Four years ago your predecessor Councillor Norman Vincett, then leader of the Council, took the brave and visionary decision to recommend that the Council step in to fund theKenilworthCentre, when the County Council withdrew financial support for youth and community activities in the town.

Over the past four years the Council has provided a fixed grant of £30,000 per annum, in return for which it has enjoyed an extraordinary level of scrutiny and oversight of the affairs of theKenilworthCentre charity, with official observers able to attend all Trustees’ meetings and privy to all papers for those meetings, and the Full Council receiving written progress reports from the charity on a quarterly basis.

At last night’s Council meeting, you brought the special relationship between the Council and theKenilworthCentre charity effectively to an end. The resolution which you proposed, which was supported by all of your fellow councillors with one honourable exception, will stop the fixed grant funding of the charity at the end of this financial year, and replace it with a one-year opportunity to bid for up to £7,500 for specific youth-related activities.

The factual inaccuracies in your statements at the meeting, and those of some of your colleagues, cannot remain unchallenged. For example, you stated that the purpose of the original 3-year grant from the Council was to give time for the charity to become self-sustaining. This is not true. The 3-year financial forecast which formed part of the transfer agreement from the County Council to the charity, and on which the signed agreement between the Town Council and the charity was based, showed the charity would be in a small cumulative deficit position after three years, but with a small surplus being achieved in the third year. This, however, was on the basis of the £30,000 p.a. funding from the Town Council continuing throughout the forecast period. How could this forecast have led to an assumption on your part that the charity could be self-sustaining without Town Council funding after 3 years? It defies logic.

You and other councillors stated that you think that the balance of the charity’s spending had “swung away from youth work”, that we spent too little on youth work etc. Dismissive remarks were made about the role that our Community Development Manager, Andy Norman, had been asked to play over the last 3 and a half years, somehow wasting his talents as a “trained youth worker”. In fact, as stated in evidence provided to councillors, Andy is a fully qualified youth and community development professional, and has been working to a broadly-based job specification of youth and community development.

You appear to have forgotten the basis on which the Town Council agreed to fund the charity, as encompassed in the signed agreement dated 15th May 2012. The specific responsibilities of theKenilworthCentre included:

Provision of a programme of youth activities within Kenilworth using experienced staff and volunteers, led by a manager with youth experience.

Operation of The Kenilworth Centre as a community centre meeting the needs of the local community.

Provision of other community activities as needed.

Town Council funding was never just about youth provision.

However, the charity actually delivers more youth-related activities compared with when the Centre was run by the County Council, not less, and Andy Norman has played a pivotal role in their development and their success. Examples include the detached youth work, one-to-one mentoring at Kenilworth School, the ‘Bumps to Babez’ initiative with young mothers, and the prize-winning ‘We Are Youth’ film which won the National Crimebeat Awards earlier this year.

As stated earlier, the Council has enjoyed an extraordinary level of scrutiny of our affairs over the last 3 and a half years. At no stage over this period did you or any other Council observer at our Trustees meetings express any of the doubts and concerns which you now claim lie behind your decision, either verbally or in writing. On the contrary, you and others used occasions such as our Annual General Meetings to shower praise on the work we were doing.

We are forced to the conclusion that you and your colleagues decided to slash the funding of theKenilworthCentre for reasons that you are not prepared to make public. One of your colleagues said that you “couldn’t continue what wasn’t working”. The many hundreds of regular users of the Centre, the 881 people who signed the petition, the young people whom we have supported through difficult times of their lives, the evidence of the many testimonials we provided to you (from the Police, the Secondary School, local residents etc), all demonstrate that theKenilworthCentre is working. It seems to be only Town Councillors who do not agree.

You chose to read out verbatim at the meeting the text of a letter I wrote to the local paper in July 2015, when I sought to reassure users and residents that the Centre was not at risk of imminent closure. The letter was in response to a rather sensational newspaper headline, which risked damaging user confidence unnecessarily, at a time when our dialogue with the Council about our future funding had barely begun. I stand by that letter, and challenge any suggestion that it was at variance with the message we have tried (and obviously failed) to get over to the Town Council. Without the ongoing financial support of the Town Council, at least for the further 3-year period we requested, the charity will not be able to continue its current broad range of activities, and may not be able to survive.

In July, the prospect facing theKenilworthCentre was the recommendation from your Finance Committee that the Council commit to two more years of funding for the charity, at a reduced rate of £20,000 for 2016/17 and £10,000 for 2017/18. This recommendation, which was not even referred to in last night’s meeting, at least had the virtue of giving the Trustees time to plan for alternative sources of funding. Last night’s decision represented a significant hardening of your position, which was as baffling as it was unexpected.

The other new factor since July, however, has been the massive outpouring of support for theKenilworthCentre from across the whole community in the last two weeks, when people realised that this wonderful community asset might be lost. This gives great encouragement to trustees and staff to focus all of our efforts into translating this support into something more tangible and sustainable. We may not succeed, but we certainly won’t give up without a fight.

It is for others in the community to decide whether or not to try to change the minds of the Town Council. You heard from Rev Andrew Attwood last night, but chose to ignore, the strength of support for theKenilworthCentre across many sections of the local community, and the readiness of local council taxpayers for the charity to continue to be funded from the town precept. He suggested that you should consult fully with local residents before finalising your decision. That option is still available to you. For my part, I am fully prepared to take part in any public forum or public debate with you, provided that it is on an equal footing for both parties, not the one-sided occasion that last night’s Town Council meeting represented.

John Whitehouse

Chair of Trustees