Northumberland County Council has found a new operator for a beleaguered Blyth community centre, as the charity which ran it is wound up.
In December, it emerged that the Briardale Community Centre had been left with a ‘severe cash-flow crisis in the immediate term’ with staff not being paid and police launching a theft investigation.
Then in early January, the county council, which owns the building, took over temporary management of the centre at the request of the trustees, having also made a repayable loan to the charity to pay the overdue salaries.
The full council meeting that month heard that following a ‘thorough assessment by officers’, the local authority had ‘made the trustees formally aware of the serious governance concerns’.
As well as informing the council, the management committee at the centre also made a serious incident report to the Charity Commission.
Now it has been reported that an insolvency practitioner acting on behalf of the trustees has attended the centre this week to wind up the charity, making staff redundant and seizing assets.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel for this important community facility, which serves the Cowpen and Kitty Brewster areas, as the council has announced that Hadston House Youth and Community Projects has been selected to run services from the centre, following a competitive selection process featuring five applicants.
An evaluation panel, which included a representative from Blyth Town Council as well as officers from the county council, was impressed with the high quality of applications received.
But it said that the Hadston House application stood out for its genuine emphasis on the community of Blyth, its focus on inclusiveness for all who will use the centre’s services and its plans to engage with users of the centre to learn more about the services that the community really wants and needs.
Candice Randall, executive director of Hadston House Youth and Community Projects, said: “We are delighted with the opportunity to work with the Briardale Centre and the Blyth community.
“As long-standing providers of services to the community, we are excited about the potential for the Briardale Centre, particularly given its long history in Blyth.”
Council leader Peter Jackson added: “I am extremely pleased that we are able to announce a new operator for the Briardale Centre, who we hope will take it forward on a firm footing for the benefit of the local community. We wish the new operator every success in this exciting new venture.”
In relation to the insolvency, he said: “This is a sad but predictable consequence of the results of poor management of the centre under the previous trustees.
“We know how important this centre is to the local community and want to provide reassurance that the council has taken prompt action to ensure that it can continue to run during this difficult period.”
Coun Jackson also highlighted the ongoing police and Charity Commission investigations, as ‘certain matters have been raised which go beyond just mismanagement and there are serious allegations of wrongdoing’.
“It was a charity serving some of the most vulnerable people not just in Blyth, but in the whole county and I really hope the police do a thorough investigation and take to task anyone who’s proven to have broken the law.”
Pointing out that among the trustees were Labour councillors Grant and Susan Davey, he added: “It’s morally repugnant that the trustees watched a disaster like this happen in front of their eyes.”
Coun Grant Davey, the Labour leader, was approached for comment but chose not to respond, although he welcomed the news of the new operator.
In a statement on behalf of the trustees announcing the handover to the county council in December, chairman Kenneth Ellis said: “The committee has pulled the centre back from the brink of closure and has been banking cash regularly over the last six weeks, but can’t find the finance to carry it over the whole third sector’s quiet period.
He added: “Over the last 18 years, the committee and its trustees have faced some difficult times with funding but none as bad as the current position we find ourselves in.”
This followed Blyth Town Council voting not to give any emergency funding to the centre at a special meeting held in private, although it said would offer support and encourage the county council to keep the centre running.
A Northumbria Police spokeswoman has this month confirmed that they are investigating an alleged theft of money and inquiries are ongoing.
Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service