'Lifeline' community centre in Thames Ditton fearful of future 'privatisation'

A community centre which is a “lifeline” for the elderly and its users say is vital for health and wellbeing is set to be “privatised” by the council.
Thames Ditton community centre is home to volunteer groups. (Credit: Emily Dalton)Thames Ditton community centre is home to volunteer groups. (Credit: Emily Dalton)
Thames Ditton community centre is home to volunteer groups. (Credit: Emily Dalton)

Newly formed community interest company (CIC) Vital Village group will take over the day-to-day management, maintenance and repair of the Thames Ditton Centre, off Watts Road.

The centre is currently open two days a week, offering activities from bridge club, woodworking, tai chi and sewing reusable bags. Hirers, both day and evening, use it throughout the week.

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Rowena Austin, who has voluntarily run the bridge club for 20 years, said bridge has been a “lifeline” for 95-year old Bronia who had to give up other activities and driving due to mobility issues.

'Men in sheds' community projects include making bird houses, a bench, bug hotels and more. Credit: Emily Dalton'Men in sheds' community projects include making bird houses, a bench, bug hotels and more. Credit: Emily Dalton
'Men in sheds' community projects include making bird houses, a bench, bug hotels and more. Credit: Emily Dalton

Rowena said: “It has proved an invaluable part of the members’ social lives, knowing that they have an activity outside their homes as many of them live on their own.” Forming new friendships, she said members meet up outside the bridge group and ring up someone who is unwell.

As Vital Village proposes to run “wraparound childcare” before and after school, some of the groups are worried it will clash with the time of their activities as well as raising safeguarding concerns.

Not only have the older visitors found a “new lease of life”, local men over 55 have a new opportunity to socialise and contribute to the community.

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“It’s saved a few marriages,” Steve Goodwin said, leading the woodwork group ‘Men in Sheds’. “Men are notoriously difficult to get out of the house…[but] it’s nice to come down here and have a laugh.”

Outside Thames Ditton Community Centre. Credit: Emily DaltonOutside Thames Ditton Community Centre. Credit: Emily Dalton
Outside Thames Ditton Community Centre. Credit: Emily Dalton

The ‘Men in Sheds’ woodwork group has been involved in community projects in and around Elmbridge. It has made coffee tables, bug houses, art pieces for Thames Ditton station and planters for the French Table in Surbiton.

Steve said he was feeling “positive” about the change and hopes it works. He said: “Our future is in [Vital Village’s] hands.”

Tricia Bland who runs Boomerang Bags, a reusable bags sewing workshop, said: “People mainly come for the social side of things.” From part-timers, new retirees to 90 years old- visitors at the centre have the opportunity to chat to each other and create plastic-free bags for the village.

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Subsidised by the council, the group is “fearful” of its long-term future at the centre. A private owner may charge them to lease the hall for voluntary work, threatening their community work.

Julie started going to the Thames Ditton centre to meet people and is now a strong member of the sewing club. “I moved here two and a half years ago and I didn’t know anyone,” she said. “I feel like I wouldn’t know what to do without it.”

Some volunteers and visitors at Thames Ditton community centre are “incredulous” at the decision to turn the community asset into a private business.

Retaining ownership of the building, Elmbridge Borough Council will lease it to Vital Village while investing while investing up to £31,000 to support the new social enterprise and making up to £130,00 available for adaptions or emergency repairs over the next three years. The council said money saved from leasing the centre, rather than running it, will contribute to the future investment.

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However, concerned residents said the council has “deliberately run it into the ground”, and the centre had previously been a “thriving” community hub. Members compared the outside of the centre to the Thames Ditton library across the road which they say has been more ‘looked after’ and invested in. EBC said it has not been delivering a day centre service for the elderly in Thames Ditton for almost a year “due to lack of demand”.

However, Tricia argued the centre has not had a manager in four years, no advertising or promotion, and claims the council has refused to allow new community groups or hirers to use the centre. She said: “It is privatisation by stealth.”

Tricia argued the wraparound childcare as well as the wellbeing projects “is firmly targeted at the working well and not those who need [the] centre” such as the elderly and vulnerable.

Ruth Lyons, a centre visitor and ex-councillor, said: “The council has turned its back on the elderly who need to get out their homes to avoid loneliness and isolation.”

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Many attendees said they were not personally against the individual director of Vital Village, but they disagreed with the council’s decision to choose a “private individual” to manage the centre over “community”.

An Elmbridge Borough Council (EBC) spokesperson said it is “delighted” to move forward with plans for the hub. They added: “Vital Village will coordinate a varied programme of activities and events that will be primarily based on community needs (through community engagement), and generally focused on health, wellbeing, environmental sustainability.”

EBC said it was “committed” to supporting its elderly population through borough-wide services with six other community centres, meals on wheels, community transport and dementia services.

The spokesperson said: “Throughout the discussions around the future use of the centre, we have collaborated with local community partners and always sought to be open and transparent about our aims and actions.

“Hirers have been reassured of their value and that there will always be a place for them at the Thames Ditton Centre.”

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