A charity, created in response to local authority cuts, has transformed a deprived Newcastle community and been asked to spread its blueprint for success to other parts of the city.
In the last five years the Blakelaw Ward Community Partnership has established the UK’s first community-owned Post Office franchise and saved from closure a library and community centre – now used every week by 3,500 people.
It has added services – a community nursery, café, shop and youth clubs – and created 27 jobs and three apprenticeships.
Its work alongside Northumbria Police in cutting crime and anti-social behaviour has been recognised with a nomination in the prestigious Howard League for Penal Reform’s awards.
Newcastle City Council has also transferred other assets to the charity. The number of people using the Simonside Centre in Newbiggin has increased by 65% since it took over and – from 1 April – the charity will start running the Cowgate Community Centre, where plans for financial sustainability include an innovative golf project for young people. Discussions over other transfers are currently taking place.
As its influence moves beyond its original base, the charity has re-launched as the Newcastle Community Asset Trust (NCAT) with the Newcastle Central MP Chi Onwurah praising its work in Blakelaw. “This was a great response to the cuts in local services,” she said. “We have a post office, when the post office was closing. We have a fantastic café serving healthy, nutritious and enjoyable food and the library’s open as well. That’s amazing. So I look forward to seeing them do more.”
But she added: “I don’t believe all community assets should be in the hands of the community. I think we still need the local authority to have the resources to run them.”
NCAT Chief Executive Glenn Pendleton, who has served communities throughout Tyneside for more than 30 years, said: “It’s very difficult for councils to continue to fund in the way they did, so we have developed an approach which benefits both local people and the council but also provides solid community-based services. We are building a trading company which subsidises all of these community assets.”
In the Spring NCAT will employ a Community Enterprise Champion whose role will be to encourage and support start-up businesses and also maximise income from the buildings run by the charity. That income will be used to pay for the continuing provision of community services.
Nick Brown, who chairs NCAT, said its pioneering work in Blakelaw and elsewhere is a blueprint of how community assets can survive and prosper.
“Local authorities – particularly in the North East – will have to continue to make cuts but we still need to find ways to connect communities,” he said. “So there are two options: allow a library or community centre to close or – with a bit of imagination, commitment and energy – find ways to make them sustainable, and that’s what we’ve done.”