On Friday night Professor Gus John delivered a powerful speech in defence of the amazing work that continues to be carried out by the staff at the Highfields Community Centre – a centre that provides a vast array of services despite facing a massive loss of funding from Leicester City Council.
Until very recently our Council actually represented the Highfields Community Association’s principle source of funding, although the Association’s contracted £200,000 income from the Council was “retrospectively withdrawn” for 2014/15.
So in the face of the ongoing misrepresentations of the continuing dispute between the Council and the Association, over the past few months Professor John had been tasked with producing a detailed report on this matter (which will be delivered to the HCA’s board of governors next week).
During his speech Professor John briefly summarised the background relating to the dramatic funding cuts facing the Association.
- In 2010 the Highfields Community Association won the right to self-governance. Leicester City Council then agreed that they would continue to fund the Association for the next three years, after which they said they would review their funding arrangements.
- But before this three-year period was up, undocumented internal discussions took place in the Council (sometime in mid-2013) about cutting of the funding for the Association. Evidently the City Mayor, Sir Peter Soulsby, had decided that if the Association wanted political independence from the Council then they should also be financially independent from the Council. This was despite the fact that the Highfields Community Association continued to provide vital local service provision on behalf of the Council (which were funded by the Council).
- Nevertheless the City Mayor did not like the Association’s newfound independence and so he has publicly asserted (with no meaningful evidence) that the Association has been asking too much money for the rooms that they have been hiring out to the Council. As part and parcel of this assertion the Labour City Council then decided to punish the Highfields Community Association by refusing to continue having a working relationship with the Association.
In the course of his investigations Professor John noted how few local Council representatives had even been prepared to speak to him. Sir Peter Soulsby set the authoritarian tone for the city when he replied to the professors enquires by saying he would have nothing further to do with the Association “until they had grown up”!
Ironically Professor John had initially received a promising response from a senior Council officer who had agreed to meet up with him, but unfortunately this individual then cancelled their meeting and passed the buck to a less senior officer, who has since refused to respond to the professor’s ongoing investigation.
Professor John observed that while some local councillors had ignored his requests for meetings, the few that did talk to him displayed a worrying level of fear of the City Mayor. At Friday’s public meeting the professor poignantly said “it was not right that local elected councillors should be so scared to talk to me, and those that did were very fearful.” He added:
“This is Leicester, not North Korea. It should not be possible that there is that much fear because of one man and the power that he exerts over people, politics, money, and people’s life chances.”
These ongoing problems, Professor John stated, owed much to the imposition upon Leicester of the City Mayoral system (in 2011) — a change in our local governance structures that extends to many other cities who have also introduced City Mayoral positions that undermined existing democratic processes in council affairs across the country.
Professor John was particularly astounded at how Leicester’s Labour City Council, led by Sir Peter Soulsby, had continued to prioritise vanity projects in the city centre while letting essential public services go to the wall, saying it was “scandalous” that the City Mayor was “making streets more important than people.”