John Lawrence on the community’s bid for Royal Park School

I want to tell you where we are in with our bid. The occupation made a lot of things happen. It galvanized the public support which we knew we had, but it also brought new people and fresh ideas to the campaign. We have consultants including an architect, a building engineer, a sustainability engineer and an economist. We have legal advice, web experts, and a graphic designer; we have a building team of professionals and tradesmen; we have academic help, and above all we have a team of enthusiastic volunteers.

We have crystallized our vision around the concept of an “exemplar” building. It will be an exemplar building in terms of its ecological footprint, in terms of its ownership and management by the community and for the community, and in terms of its inclusivity – owned and used by the whole community and not just a particular part of it. It will provide a breathing space and a beating heart for the whole community.

How are we to achieve this? We have a funding team looking at seedcorn grants and longer term grants. We are gathering expressions of interest from social and commercial enterprises in the area, to calculate our potential rent income, and we are getting a lot of positive responses. Our consultants are performing a Social Return on Investment calculation. We are not a commercial concern but our project will bring great benefits to the area and this will be shown by the social return on investment calculation. We believe that we qualify for the Asset Transfer scheme. We know that in Leeds this scheme has had a slow start but we feel that some momentum is gathering. We note in the Executive Board minutes that the Bangladeshi Community Centre is to be offered a 50 year lease with a peppercorn rent and at less than best consideration. We want something similar to that.

The sticking point in all this is that the council’s terms are entirely commercial. We are not a commercial concern and so we seem to be constructively dismissed from the process. We ask that Leeds City Council rethink this.

Royal Park School – the council thinks it’s in Harehills !

“Vision for Leeds 2004 to 2020” is a document produced by Leeds Initiative, a body which describes itself as “a public, private & community partnership for Leeds, led by the City Council”. According to their website, “The Vision for Leeds is a long-term strategy for the economic, social and environmental development of the city”.

On page 67 of the Vision it states :

Leeds is a unique city made up of very different places and communities, including rural areas, market towns, outlying areas and inner-city neighbourhoods. Every neighbourhood, village and town in Leeds needs its own identity and role.

This is very true. So why then on the same page is there a picture of Royal Park Road with the caption “A street in Harehills” ? The photograph with its caption reveal the above statement to be nothing more than another meaningless Leeds City Council platitude. It’s clear that to the people behind this document, one inner city area is pretty much the same as any other.

When a council acts against its own citizens

Leeds City Council closed Royal Park School five years ago. Since then, it’s allowed the school to be vandalised, and has done nothing to repair the resulting damage. Two weeks ago, local residents moved into the school to prevent further deterioration and to make repairs. Everyone in the area rallied round, including a local firm which offered free of charge, to replace lead that had been taken from the roof, provided the council returned it. But instead of giving back the lead, the council handed residents a summons to appear in court. And so, on Monday, residents were ordered to quit the building, which they did the next day. The council also asked for, and was awarded, costs against the residents.

The year that the council closed Royal Park School, 2004, was also the year that it produced a document called “Vision for Leeds 2004 to 2020”. How does the council reconcile its actions over Royal Park School with the promise on page 27 of this document to “involve local people in planning the future of their areas”.

And how does evicting residents from the school and asking for costs against them help to achieve any of these aims contained in the Leeds Strategic Plan :

  • Increase the number of local people engaged in activities to meet community needs and improve the quality of life for local residents.
  • Increase the number of local people that are empowered to have a greater voice and influence over local decision making and a greater role in public service delivery.
  • Enable a robust and vibrant voluntary, community and faith sector to facilitate community activity and directly deliver services.
  • Increase the sense of belonging and pride in local neighbourhoods that help to build cohesive communities.

Whilst it may be true that the “Vision for Leeds 2004 to 2020” and the “Leeds Strategic Plan” aren’t worth the paper they’re written on, it’s also likely to be the case that producing the two documents cost more than it would have cost to give Royal Park School to the community.

(photos courtesy of Yorkshire Post Newspapers)

The Empire strikes back

Leeds City Council has allowed Royal Park School to lie empty for five years. During this time, they’ve allowed the building to fall into disrepair. Lead was stolen from the roof five months ago, and the council did nothing about it. But now that local people have intervened to save the building, Leeds City Council has moved swiftly to evict them. Legal papers have been served on the residents occupying the building requiring them to appear in court.

This isn’t just about Leeds City Council’s contempt for the people of Hyde Park and Woodhouse. If the residents who’ve taken action succeed in reclaiming and restoring the building, everybody will be able to see that the current Leeds City Council is redundant, and worse than that, an obstacle in the path of local democracy and progress. So we can be certain that the ruling coalition won’t rest until it’s done everything in its power to make the school derelict again.

For further information, please see the official Royal Park Community Consortium website.

(Photo courtesy of drgillybean)

Royal Park School jumble sale

I arrived at the school at midday, just minutes after the jumble sale had begun. Already the hall was busy with people browsing through piles of jumble. This amazing turnout at what for many people is lunchtime, shows how much this building means to local people, and how determined they are to save it. Whilst the punters browsed through piles of jumble, a small army of workmen and women worked tirelessly in the background, helping to restore the building so that it can once again become the centre of this closely knit community.

Watching all this activity, I thought about the disconnect that exists between Leeds City Council and the people of Hyde Park and Woodhouse. We pay our council tax like everyone else, but what do we get in return ? A local authority which ignores our wishes, sells off assets to developers at bargain basement prices, spends large sums of money on its own pet projects, whilst at the same time cutting services to local people.

This train of thought was ended by a friend telling me that I really must take a look at the cake stall. Laid out on a pink table cover was an array of the most delicious looking home-made cakes. People who come along here this afternoon, will be glad they did for more reasons than one.

Residents act to save Royal Park School

In June of this year, lead was stolen from the roof of Royal Park Primary School, allowing water to penetrate the building and damage its fabric. Already, plasterwork, paintwork, and a beautiful parquet floor have been damaged. In the face of Leeds City Council’s failure to replace the lead, or to protect the building, local residents have begun to repair the building themselves.

There’s to be a jumble sale at the school from 12 noon until 4pm on Sunday the 15th November with the proceeds going to the restoration fund. The occasion provides people with an opportunity not just to support efforts to save the school, but to see the unusually beautiful school interior with its cast iron banisters and unique first floor hall. Royal Park School is located at the junction of Queen’s Road and Royal Park Road.

Map showing the location of the school

Photos of the school

Yorkshire Evening Post article

Council vandalism

When it was decided to close Royal Park School, the ruling Labour group promised to retain the building for community use. But then in May 2004, the Lib Dems and Conservatives took power and failed to honour the pledge made that was made by their predecessors. And so the building has been allowed to lie empty for several years, and now, the council wants to demolish it.

Earlier this year, it was reported in the Yorkshire Evening Post that developers had demolished historic Elmfield Infants School in Morley. In his defence, the developer stated, “We had no other choice due to the vandalism of the building. If someone had been injured, there would have been problems for us as directors”.

The argument used by the developer to justify his action is identical to the argument being used by Leeds City Council to justify the proposed demolition of Royal Park School. What is being proposed here is legalised vandalism. Just because it’s Leeds City Council that’s instigating this and not a private developer doesn’t make it alright – it actually makes it worse. Leeds City Council should be using its resources to support the community in Hyde Park, not tearing it down.