'Thankless task' to balance the needs of the Houghton Regis community with the need to educate vulnerable children

Controversial debate about the dual use of community centre in Houghton Regis

By Euan Duncan
Wednesday, 9th February 2022, 3:33 pm
Updated Wednesday, 9th February 2022, 3:34 pm

Conservative councillors have backed a cabinet colleague over a controversial debate about the dual use of a community centre in Houghton Regis.

They unanimously agreed to continue the current arrangement which allows Central Bedfordshire College to teach around 50 vulnerable students.

Their teaching base was switched to Bedford Square Community Centre, after an independent alternative schooling operator Develop Dunstable became insolvent last year.

Central Beds Council HQ

Conservative Marston Moretaine councillor Sue Clarke described it as "an extremely emotive and difficult issue for councillors and residents in Houghton Regis", telling the council's executive. "Unfortunately the Department for Education withdrew the funding for Develop Dunstable.

"It left us, children's services, where the distinct courses Develop provided would disappear almost overnight," she explained.

"We were going to be leaving some of our most vulnerable learners, children with special educational needs and disabilities, with nothing because there's no other similar provision in the area. It was the right decision to step in."

Conservative Stotfold and Langford councillor Steve Dixon referred to it as "an emergency situation", saying: "A number of sites were considered. To suggest we plumped for here alone is misleading.

"I'm comfortable with the dual use. Things may change again. It's not all about money, but we've to be mindful of those issues."

A report presented to the executive on February 8 by Conservative Dunstable Watling councillor Eugene Ghent recommended the college continues its education programme at the community centre beyond July.

Councillor Ghent, who's the executive member for housing and assets, reassured the executive: "Things are happening in Houghton Regis. We're investing nearly £100m as a council in the town."

But the term time loss of the facility has been heavily criticised by local councillors at several local authority meetings.

Liberal Democrat Houghton Hall councillor Susan Goodchild said: "CBC has given the college rent free use of Bedford Square for a year.

"The council has fully discharged its responsibility to the students. The ongoing use isn't justified or proportionate.

"The centre is underused, but that's a management and promotion issue which could be addressed.

"If there'd been the slightest hint that the new building, All Saints View, would be used to justify part closure of the community centre it would have been greeted with horror.

"Be in no doubt the damage to community cohesion in Houghton Regis and to the reputation of this council is real and severe. The process and decision making up to this point has been flawed.

"It felt all along we had the verdict and now we're looking for the evidence."

Independent Tithe Farm councillor Pat Hamill said: "The recommendation takes away a community centre built for a town of 19,000 plus residents.

"Our one and only community centre has been handed over to education on weekdays, even though, in your words as a council, such centres are the heart of the community. Well, we've got heart trouble, haven't we?

"Get the college to find another building by the end of its stay."

Liberal Democrat Linslade councillor Peter Snelling said: "It's disappointing councillor Ghent has made his mind up about this from the outset.

"What also disappointed me was he totally ignored that overview and scrutiny hadn't come down on the side of these recommendations. It doesn't show the council in a particularly good light."

Conservative Heath and Reach councillor Mark Versallion disagreed, saying: "The council stepped into the breach because an educational organisation failed.

"It's a difficult decision and a thankless task to find the balance between the needs of the local community and those of vulnerable children who require an education."