Ottery St Mary Youth Centre
In summer 2014, the vicar of Ottery St Mary, Mac Dick, read about Devon County Council’s plans to reduce its youth services from a universal to a targeted service, involving the closure of most existing youth centres. Mac also read that Devon County Council (DCC) was inviting people to register an interest in helping to sustain any of those services that might be impacted by the plans.
O6 is a charity established by the town’s Churches Together group. It employed a part-time church youth worker and, at its next meeting, Mac proposed the group step in and do something about the proposed closure.
O6 registered its interest in finding a way to save the centre, and received the Expression of Interest forms from DCC.
Realising that much thought and effort would need to go into developing a plan, as well as help from elsewhere in the community, Mac organized an open meeting at the youth centre. It attracted parents, councillors, some young people and representatives from local churches and other voluntary groups.
Mac said: “The young people who came were so passionate, and said they owed a big debt to the club. That’s what really made me want to take this forward. Some people were saying it was disgraceful that the Council wanted to close this facility. My view was that cuts had to come from somewhere; the important thing was seeing what we could do about it.”
Putting a plan together
Mac worked with a group of town councillors to start putting a proposal together. They believed that the centre would not be financially viable based on its existing low levels of utilization; closed more than it was open, and with the upper-floors unused.
They planned to make the most of the space and in new ways, extending its function from a youth club to a hub for wider community use. A range of local organisations were approached to assess whether there would be interest in community rooms for hire, and positive responses convinced the bid-writing team to press on with their idea to expand The Station into a community hub.
The plan envisaged a volunteer management group overseeing the building and the activity within it, but youth groups themselves would be led by qualified youth workers, funded on an hourly basis through the revenue generated by building utilization (around 65%).
Mac made a presentation to the town council, which gave its unanimous support to the O6 proposals. The plan was submitted to DCC, and it was accepted. This meant that DCC would transfer the building to Ottery Town Council on a peppercorn rent, along with £10,000 of start-up funding, provided this sum could be matched by the town council.
At a subsequent meeting, town councillors agreed to provide the match funding and to take on the lease of the building formally.
The youth club was symbolically reopened for one night in December, just two months after it closed.
The intention is to open properly from March, with regular sessions in place from Easter. The programme will involve one session once a fortnight for two groups – years 6-8 and years 9 and above, though it is hoped that over time the centre may be able to provide weekly sessions like it did before.
The ambition and progress towards it
The centre now has a volunteer-led management group in place to plan the programme of activity and promote the centre as a community venue. Meanwhile DCC is working to let the vacant office space in the building to a long-term tenant in order to provide further income for the venue.
DCC and town council start-up funding will give the group an initial breathing space as the new service gets off the ground, with membership subscriptions and venue charges helping the centre to become self-sustaining in the medium term.
Mac has been the driving force behind the project so far, but plans to step back over the first 12 months of operation. He says that support from the town council and DCC has been crucial in getting the project off the ground, and that his own background in youth work has been very helpful in understanding the terrain and opening up conversations with stakeholders.
He said: ‘It’s been hard work, but very exciting. Nothing we’ve done is that complicated; it’s more about having a clear vision, a short strategy around the ‘how’, and people’s good will.
“The key is getting people who can help you to get your ideas down clearly, so that when you put in proposals, those reading them can see they’re well thought through and have solid foundations.”