Fight to save town's activity centre

By Ted JeoryAN activity centre that has been home to community groups for almost 30 years could be sold off to make way for a multi-million-pound development.

By Ted Jeory

AN activity centre that has been home to community groups for almost 30 years could be sold off to make way for a multi-million-pound development.

More than 4,000 people have signed a petition to fight a plan by Braintree District Council to relocate the Spring Lodge Community Centre in Witham to a new site more than a mile away.

The centre, which is home to more than 50 activity groups for young and old, is managed by Witham Community Association, which has leased the site on a peppercorn rent since the early 1970s.

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But the 28-year lease comes up for renewal at the end of March, leaving many residents worried about what will happen next.

Braintree District Council currently owns 14 community halls and has estimated it needs to spend at least £250,000 upgrading facilities at many of them to comply with disability access regulations.

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That has forced the council to consider all options, including selling off the four-acre Spring Lodge site to housing developers and relocating it to Stevens Road.

The centre has been granted a stay of execution by the council until plans are finalised after a period of consultation, but Spring Lodge manager, Ted Walker, said residents were vehemently opposed to any move.

“We're established here - we're close to the estates and the station and so it's convenient and safe for people,” he added.

“If they moved us, a lot of people just wouldn't go because they couldn't get there easily - I think they need to put people before simple profit.

“There's much feeling about all this - we just don't want to be moved out of our home.”

But the council's executive member for health and community, Graham Butland, said the 4,000 people who signed the petition were a minority compared to the hundreds of thousands who live in the district.

“We have a major review of community services going on and it's important that is not railroaded by just one group,” he added.

“I'm determined that we will have good-quality, affordable halls and I think that we'll come up with a plan that will enable us to provide them.

“However, this will mean a significant need for capital investment and we have to fund that somehow - I'm sure people would not swallow big increases in Council Tax.”

Mr Butland said fully-costed proposals would be put in place by mid-March and a final decision on the centre's future would be taken after another period of consultation.

But Alan Hurst, the Labour MP for Braintree, who has signed the protest petition, said: “Location is absolutely key to these community centres - their convenience means that people use them.

“It's all very well the council saying they'll build a new centre, but it's no good if people, can't get to it - there are more innovative solutions that need to be explored.”

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