Lambeth’s Strategy Doesn’t Add Up

Lambeth Council have recently unveiled a new ‘community asset’ strategy, intended to help community groups like the ones that use WAC. However, the strategy includes increasing our rent by £45,000, putting our entire existence in jeopardy and actually removing services for the 30,000 people a year who typically come through our doors.

Sound crazy? We think so. The strategy is poorly thought-out and consulted, and has the exact opposite effect of what’s intended. Here are four ways that Lambeth’s strategy harms the community rather than helping, even going against their own values in the process.

Mangling Mental Health

In the wake of two years of lockdowns, mental health is more important than ever. Lambeth Council acknowledge the importance of mental health, and of having a network of family and friends to provide support.

People with higher levels of wellbeing live longer, healthier, happier lives and are more resilient in hard times. … It is important to reach out to family and friends when you are struggling. They will want to help and see you get better.

WAC is unique in that it is user-led and people come together as equals to help run their centre. Imagine the difference between a council service where a volunteer comes round to keep you company, and a centre where you can mix with your peers and run the groups together, doing something useful and making a contribution. You don’t have to be a mental health professional to appreciate that the difference is huge.

Coming together as equals is better for our mental health than accessing a council service

Instead, Lambeth would close the service where people come together as equals, running their own groups and activities, and make them become “service users” in taxpayer-funded professional services instead. The current situation is better for users and costs the council nothing. Why change it? It seems to be driven more by wanting to control everything than by improving the services for the community.

Destroying Digital Inclusion

WAC has been championing digital inclusion before it had a name. We have been running computer courses for older and vulnerable people for over 15 years, we work with other community groups to secure free phones and laptops for people who need them, and recently created a computer room where users can access the internet, use a PC and get help from an expert.

In the last couple of years digital inclusion has become a buzzword. Lambeth have started talking about it and created a digital inclusion fund.

The Covid-19 pandemic has served to highlight both how central technology has become to how we deliver public services, and how necessary digital access is for Lambeth’s residents and businesses to stay connected, learn, keep well, access help and advice, and be engaged in society.   

We know that thousands of Lambeth residents are digitally excluded to some degree. It is an issue that affects many different people, including children and young people, older people, disabled people and vulnerable adults.

In autumn 2020, Lambeth Council launched a £200,000 Digital Inclusion Fund to address digital poverty for residents across the borough, in response to the Coronavirus pandemic.

As laudable as this is, digital inclusion is about much more than giving someone a device or throwing money at the problem. We know this because it’s what we do!

First you have to reach people who are digitally excluded. For many of our users WAC is their only social contact with people, and they simply wouldn’t know about any digital inclusion schemes if they didn’t come here. If the council tried to “find” people who are digitally excluded, they would simply slip through the net.

WAC is uniquely positioned to facilitate digital inclusion through our existing networks

Secondly, people have to be motivated to learn and to get involved. Most people we work with can’t understand to begin with why they would possibly want to use a computer or the internet. It’s only because they are coming to see their friends and take part in other activities that we are able to reach out to them in the first place.

As if to show how much they don’t understand this, Lambeth’s consultations on the effects of losing WAC were done entirely online and during lockdown. A great deal of our users do not use the internet (many are unable to use a mouse or smartphone) and were not consulted. This is exactly the same way they would slip through the net if we were to close, and throwing money at the problem isn’t going to solve it.

What’s the point of raising money for digital inclusion services but shutting down the self-funding services that are already working? Is it really about the community or is it about being able to say how much money you’ve spent? It just doesn’t make sense.

Mishandling Maintenance

As part of their rent increases for community organisations, Lambeth are putting together a £2 million fund to repair and refurbish buildings.

This strategy also has the best interest of residents at heart- as users of these spaces, many residents have been using spaces that did not get the right amount of maintenance or repairs, often putting them at risk, and some buildings were not even accessible.

More than £2.25 million will be invested in refurbishing properties, which will be on top of regular smaller maintenance repairs.

Since taking over the building in 1973, WAC have raised over £1.5 million – two thirds of Lambeth’s fund for the entire borough – for exactly this. We have carried out extensive renovations, added another floor and a lift, ensuring accessibility and safety for everyone. Countless hours of volunteer time have also been put in, with members of the community coming together to support their local centre and each other.

WAC have already raised £1.5 million to make their building safe and accessible

Now that WAC have raised all this money putting the building right and making it accessible to everyone, Lambeth want to start charging vastly more money and saying there is a fund available to carry out the remedial work that we have already done! They never showed any interest in the accessibility and safety of our building until they wanted to raise the rent by £45k!

Keeping it Complicated

Lambeth are trying to build a £1million social fund which will be available to local groups to “set up and deliver community projects that will really change people’s lives”.

The aim is to build an annual social value fund worth an estimated £1million which will be available to local groups, grassroots community projects and people living on our housing estates to bid for funding to set up and deliver community projects that will really change people’s lives.

There are more than 40 different groups at WAC, all of which are already busy changing people’s lives. Increasing our rent – and theirs in turn – means these groups won’t be able to carry on unless they apply for the Lambeth grant, in order to pay the extra rent that Lambeth are charging.

Under the new system, groups will have to apply for a Lambeth Council grant, to pay for the huge increase in Lambeth Council rent.

What this means is a far more complicated and stressful system to achieve exactly the same result. Most groups are run by busy volunteers who will now have the extra hassle of applying to Lambeth’s grant, whilst with every application the group has to hang in the balance, not knowing if their application will be approved and if they will be able to continue.

These groups are all going along just fine without having to trouble Lambeth for funding or other resources, because they can rent rooms from WAC at a rate they can afford. Why make it more expensive and then make them apply for a grant to pay your inflated prices? It makes no sense.