When it comes to the loss of community spaces, boxing coach Mark Holt does not hold back. After all, he’s had first-hand experience – not once but twice.
“The council is closing so many youth centres and they wonder why there are kids out on the streets stabbing each other,” says Mark, 51, who has dedicated his life to the family-run Nechells Amateur Boxing Club.
For almost 60 years the club was based in Nechells Green Community Centre, in the inner-city area of Birmingham. In 2016 the Holts – Mark, his dad Derek, 77, and his uncle Ernie, 81 – were told by the council the club would have to vacate the building so it could be auctioned off. And it is not the only community space to be sold off to the highest bidder.
A decade of severe and sustained cuts to local government budgets have led to cash-strapped councils like Birmingham selling off public assets such as libraries, playing fields and youth centres to make ends meet – and some are using the money to make hundreds of people redundant, an investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, in partnership with HuffPost UK, has found.
During the last three years the local authority has made extensive use of the new freedoms around sell-offs, spending £49m raised from offloading public land, buildings and open spaces on making reforms or cuts to services – more than any other local authority in England.
Spending funded with this money includes a £12m investment in a new IT system, £1.6m on changes to its waste service and a staggering £23m on redundancies, of which there have been nearly 1,000 since 2016/17.
The council’s workforce has halved since 2010 – and just last week, plans to cut another 1,095 jobs were revealed. A Birmingham MP, Steve McCabe, has described the situation as “truly desperate” and says the financial strain on the council has become so bad street lights are being dimmed on the city.
The cutbacks have left communities facing a double whammy of cuts, as public spaces and buildings are lost forever, while council services are being downgraded or stopped completely and jobs cut.
Those challenges are being felt on the ground across the city.
In Nechells, Mark, the head coach says the council called a meeting last year to say the community centre wasn’t making enough money so it was going to be sold.
The club, which has produced a string of champions and attracts around 50 members per session, was eventually relocated to Newtown Community Centre in August last year, which is where they currently train three nights a week. But the arrangement is temporary because the building, where legendary rock band Black Sabbath first rehearsed, is also being sold by the council.
“We’ve been told we’ve got to leave again so we’re in the process of trying to get our own unit,” says Mark. “It’s destroyed my uncle. He doesn’t sleep. We don’t just run a boxing club, we go to shows all around the country with our lads. We keep kids off the streets.”
In February, Nechells Green Community Centre was sold by the council at auction for £1.3 million, more than three times the guide price. The centre and surrounding grounds sit between a railway track and a housing estate, in an area with high rates of unemployment, crime and poverty.
As well as Nechells Green Community Centre and the impending loss of Newtown Community Centre, the council also sold Phoenix Community Centre and Square Club Community Centre after the spending rules were relaxed.
In Weoley Castle, in the south-west of the city, the Square Club, once the home of a popular youth club, sits dormant behind a parade of shops.
Through the locked gates, its smashed-in and boarded-up windows are clearly visible. Despite having being sold for £282,000 to a church in 2017, it remains derelict partly due to a massive fire that ripped through the building in December 2018.
Perhaps it’s for this reason that many locals were not aware the council had sold off the building. On the other side of a large roundabout that doubles as a park, Florence Johnson is walking her youngest child, Keon, 5, home. She had no idea the centre had been sold and says the news is “a big blow”.
The mother-of-three last visited around three years ago when her daughter, who was five at the time, took ballet classes there. The classes were moved to a local church due to problems with the heating. She had assumed the closure was temporary.
“I didn’t know it had been sold off … [I’m] a bit shocked,” she says. “I thought they might be refurbishing the place. Now it has been sold off, where will the children go? … They are not thinking of the children, are they? They need places to go after school,”
Outside the centre’s entrance, retiree Brian Davis also hasn’t heard the news. The 82-year-old, who used to attend the youth club when he was 14, says: “If they want to sell something, that’s fine if they are going to put something there that’s useful. You don’t mind if the rates don’t rise but they keep going up and you’re not seeing anything for it.
“I went there in 1951. It was run by a teacher. We had square dancing and a bit of rock ‘n’ roll and it had a swimming pool in there. It was great, a lovely club,” he says. “I don’t know what there is nowadays [for young people] … There’s all this pilates stuff but it’s not there to help the people, it’s there to make money, isn’t it?”
He adds: “Things do keep vanishing. It’s a shame.”
In total the council disposed of 167 buildings or plots of land between April 2016 and July 2018, according to the data gathered by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. However, the council refused to reveal the prices or who the properties were sold to.
The Labour-run authority has attempted other methods of restricting the public’s ability to scrutinise what it is doing with its assets, proposing a change to its constitution which would raise the threshold under which council officers can approve sales behind closed doors from £1m to £5m. The idea has been temporarily shelved after opposition from Conservative councillors.
“It’s completely undemocratic and it’s part of the reason why Birmingham has so many problems, because there isn’t proper oversight of what is being done” says Robert Alden, leader of the Conservative group on the council.
But Ian Ward, the Labour leader of the council, hits back by placing the blame for the situation squarely at the Conservative government’s door.
“The tragic reality of austerity is that vulnerable people, young and old, in communities like Newtown and Nechells have paid the price because the bankers crashed the economy and the Tories decided that rather than their friends in the city, it would be working class people who would suffer.”
Instead of having this beautiful community facility that everyone can go and swim in, you’ve got this derelict building that used to be a poolViv Harrison, a trustee of the baths
Steve McCabe, MP Birmingham Selly Oak agrees and says it is no surprise that the council is trying to mitigate some of the cuts by selling off assets “when they have been left in this position”.
“We are now being told that our street lights will be dimmed late at night while our council tax bills will increase,” he said. “It truly is a desperate situation.”
He added: “I am quite clear that the responsibility lies firmly with the government ... The prime minister says austerity is over so my message to the government is give the funding our council and police so desperately need to save our services, because Birmingham has had enough.”
However, Khalid Mahmood, Labour MP for Birmingham Parry Bar, thinks the council should take some of the blame. “We should never have been doing this,” he said. “We should never have been selling the land that we have inherited from our forefathers for future generations. That is an absolutely ridiculous way to do business.”
He adds he didn’t think that there had been enough transparency “at all” and that most people in Birmingham and even most councillors wouldn’t know about it.
When communities have realised in advance that their favourite local community space is at risk of closure or being sold, some of them have decided to fight back. Just over four miles to the east of the Square Club sits Moseley Road Baths, an Edwardian Grade II* listed swimming pool, in Balsall Heath.
The pool was originally earmarked for closure by Birmingham City Council in the summer of 2017. Prior to this the Friends of Moseley Road Baths had hoped to persuade them it was worth saving. An application to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) was being put together, however things soon changed.
Viv Harrison, a trustee of the baths, says when the government’s austerity cuts “really kicked in”, the council realised they actually didn’t have the money to match fund the HLF bid. Not only that, she says, but they no longer had the money to keep running the swimming pool themselves.
The friends group, of which Harrison was chairman at the time, joined up with other organisations to form an action group to look into how to keep the baths open and after lots of discussions, the council agreed to let them have a go.
She says that community spaces such as the pool are places for people from all walks of life in the area to come together. She says: “It becomes a focal point for the community.”
“Moseley Road, for example, is a beautiful Edwardian pool right on the main road that runs through Balsall Heath,” she says. “If you were going to lose that it would have a big impact on the community as a whole. Instead of having this beautiful community facility that everyone can go and swim in, you’ve then got this derelict building that used to be a pool.”
It’s the type of facility that areas with high deprivation need more of, not less, she says. “When you look at an area with quite poor health statistics [like Balsall Heath], the last thing you should be doing is taking away one of the few facilities that can actually help people improve their lives.”
Still, it was “a huge project” for a group of volunteers with no experience of running a swimming pool to take on, but eventually they managed to reopen it in April 2018. Along with funding and help from organisations such as Locality, they have had a lot of support from the council, who this year are providing £100,000 for essential maintenance work.
The original decision by the council to close the baths down had been a “very reluctant” one she says, which she believes helps explain the support. She can also understand how hard the decisions they have to make are given the cuts the council have faced.
“When it comes to it and you’re sitting there and you’re making a choice. ‘Do we fund social workers for at risk families or do we fund some libraries?’ You can see why it’s the libraries and swimming pools that are the ones that are getting closed.”
She adds: “But it shouldn’t be an either/or, really.”
Back in Nechells Jasbar Sehjal has just picked up some food from a chicken shop on his lunch break. He had heard the community centre had been sold but was “surprised” the council could use the money for cutting services and making redundancies.
“There’s no foresight. It’s just short-term, short-term, short-term. That’s the problem. They are cutting so many corners, they are an inward spiral.”
Asked what he would say to the council leader if he could speak to him directly, he says: “I would say to him, you’ve got to look at the bigger picture.”
What does the council say?
A Birmingham City Council spokesperson said:
“One of the key ways in which the council has been impacted by significant cuts in central government funding and local spending pressures since 2010 is the need to save £690million. This has led to a need to redesign services and the way they are delivered to match the financial resources available.
“This has inevitably meant the council’s workforce has significantly reduced in size, now employing 12,000 fewer people, with the use of compulsory redundancies always a last resort.
“The redundancies help meet the financial challenge in the long term – and the council has used the capital powers available across local government to it to ensure it can fund this course of action and deliver the necessary ongoing savings; it is not possible to attribute the use of Capital Receipts Flexibility with any specific capital receipts that have been generated.
“Economies of scale always mean that Birmingham, as the largest local authority, will appear near the top of any such lists and properties are only ever disposed of following a thorough process in which all other possible uses are first considered.”
Additional reporting Emma Youle and Jane Haynes
Explore the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s interactive map to see what’s been sold off in your neighbourhood. If you’re concerned about the results you can write to your council and your MP to raise the issue.
Or, if you have information about a particular building or space that has been sold off, let us know by contacting news editor firstname.lastname@example.org. Likewise if you are a council worker, past or present, with a story to tell, get in touch.
Safeguard the future: If you know of local buildings or space under threat, you can tell Locality, who coordinate #SaveOurSpaces, and who also advise what communities can do to save public buildings and spaces.