U3A newsletter - Special Feature on Strutts
Here we present the answers provided by Nick McLeod Chairman of The Guardians of Strutts to s series of questions asked by U3A for their newsletter. The University of the Third Age to give the U3A it's full title is one of our biggest customers and more information can be found on there national web site at http://www.u3a.org.uk/.
Trustees / Guardians - what does it mean?
The "Guardians of Strutts" is a Company Limited by guarantee and a registered charity. It is an independent body that owns the Strutts site outright. Its objectives are to provide community facilities and to restore the building to its former glory, for the benefit of the township of Belper. The trustees are the directors who are legally responsible for the charity. The trustees are all local people who feel passionately about the future of this wonderful building and aim to create a lasting legacy for the community of Belper to use and enjoy.
What are your main plans for the future?
Strutts has been around for 107 years and we hope that it will continue as a community run centre for at least the next 100 years, so we need to take a long term view about the site. The future plans depend largely upon funding and the volunteer effort that we have available. We will not finance our plans with debt and rely mainly upon operating surpluses and some grants. We try to ensure that every room "earns its keep" and finds new uses to meet the needs and demands of the community. Therefore, the precise timing of projects is uncertain, but as Strutts becomes more popular, generating more income, we can afford to improve the fabric and facilities, sooner rather than later.
In the first 5 years we invested significant funds on essential maintenance to make the building watertight, all work that is not seen, and which is ongoing. We are now turning our attention to the more visible internal redecoration, especially the hall and public areas. The restored library and Room 10 show the standard we hope to achieve, but we still have a lot of peeling paint as a legacy from the damp.
We are currently refurbishing the main toilets to make them suitable for adult use. This is a preliminary step to the provision of a lift to the first floor which will make our larger room accessible to all. We have already raised £10K from local donations towards the cost of the lift and are in the process of finding contractors to undertake the work this year.
We would like to attract more commercial users during the daytime when we have more rooms available. This would be an opportunity to significantly increase our turnover which, in turn, would enable us to bring our restoration plans forward and perhaps to pay for additional services or to employ staff.
Apart from the restoration work, the list of plans for the future is long and is growing as new potential uses of the building arise. For example, we want to reinstate the school kitchen for food related activities. We want to create a permanent studio theatre upstairs in our second largest room, for our resident amateur dramatic groups and to create a cinema. As our largest cost is heating we need to invest in renewable energy systems to make the building energy efficient. The list of projects is only limited by our imagination as to how to use the building and the available effort from our volunteers.
Challenges that face you every week?
We have been open as a community centre for six and a half years and the success of Strutts as a venue has meant that the opening hours become ever longer. Our customers require support from us for their activities so it is a real challenge to organise reception cover week in week out throughout the year.
A particular challenge arises when we have events or performances in the Hall, there are problems arranging access to the rest of the building for other groups and keeping everyone happy.
Most rooms have multiple uses, some that require a clear space and other that need many tables and chairs. The logistics of moving furniture around the building becomes a significant problem. We provide catering, sell second-hand books and have a licenced bar to run. The outside grounds extend to 3.5 acres and much of this is grass, which at this time of year needs cutting once a week. The flower beds and planters, together with the trees and hedges all require regular attention. We need more volunteers to enable the trustees to devote more time to the efficient operations of the site and longer term plans.
How many volunteers do you have and how do you recruit them?
The success of Strutts as a community centre is based upon the efforts of the community that it serves. Local authorities do not, and will not be able to fund community facilities like Strutts in the future. It is not only the volunteers who help run the centre, but also the many volunteers who run the wide range of groups that use the facilities, that make it a success. Belper will not get another opportunity to have such a fantastic facility that enables so many community activities to run at the same time in the same building.
Volunteering should be fun and enjoyable, as well as rewarding for contributing towards a deserving cause. We try to make it a sociable experience at Strutts and it is a good place to make new friends and acquaintances. As with any voluntary group the relationships between volunteers is crucial to its success. We have around 30 volunteers who regularly provide reception cover, cater, clean, move furniture, redecorate, repair and restore the building and its 3.5 acre grounds.
There is a suggestion that we should have paid staff to run the centre, but we aim to help build the community of Belper, and to help make it more sustainable. It takes around 12,000 volunteer hours just to keep the doors of the Centre open, and if we paid a living wage for all this effort the bill would be around £300K. So, with an income of around £80K and running costs of £40K Strutts is not viable without its volunteers. These volunteers, from the community itself, together with the users, value the centre more and take ownership of the site for the community. The activities that take place at Strutts make Belper a better place to live for us and our children and their children. The future depends on our volunteers.
The future sustainability of Strutts should rely upon a little effort from many rather than a lot of effort from a few willing volunteers. Although we have had a "hard core" of volunteers who have been with the project since its inception nine years ago, we need to look to pass the task on to the next generations. We recruit most of our volunteers by word of mouth, some from the user groups, some from our banners which have attracted new members, but we need to do more.
How do you manage the cleaning?
For the first five years we cleaned the building ourselves with a hard working group of volunteers. We always said that when we could afford it we would pay professional cleaners to look after the toilets, which we have done. We still rely upon volunteers to clean the rooms and stairs. It would be helpful if the users would contribute more by leaving the rooms in the state they found them. This is a matter of us all taking pride in our Community Centre and treating it accordingly. The increased usage of the building has put greater demands upon the cleaning and the cobwebs are a particular challenge with the height of the windows and ceilings. We recognise the need to improve the standard of cleaning but we have limited resources and can only do our best.
Annual running costs and the main items of expenditure?
The centre is run entirely by volunteers who give their time freely for the benefit of others. If we were paid minimum/living wages, the employment costs would be in the order of £300K for the service that we currently provide. The turnover of the project is around £80K with the greatest proportion of income from room hire. It costs around £40K to "open the doors" and pay for heating, lighting, insurance, cleaning and consumables. The largest cost is gas at around £14K, but early on, we took the decision that it was a price we had to pay to make the place warm and cosy. We use the "surplus" to maintain the building and to improve the facilities.
Our biggest customer is the U3A with all its various groups!
The busiest times are Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings, when we can have up to 19 different groups in the building at the same time.
What are the main complaints you receive?
Once users are made aware that Strutts is run entirely by volunteers for the benefit of the users, most people are appreciative of what we have achieved. A few of them are even moved to volunteer their services to help run the centre. We actually have very few complaints when we consider the number of people who use the Centre. There are a few however who complain about the state of the carpets and floors, the peeling paint, the absence of toilet rolls, that the rooms are too hot or too cold. We listen carefully and try to resolve the issue or offer explanation if we can't. The job list lengthens and there are limits to what we can achieve without more help.
What do you feel the user groups could contribute?
We always planned to have a user group forum which would discuss problems and identify the need for new facilities, but it has not yet been set up. After all, the user groups are the largest beneficiaries of Strutts and should make a contribution beyond the financial payment for room hire and the services that we provide. The user groups could provide volunteers to help run the centre, for example, cover reception an evening a week, cleaning or decorate "their" room, or take responsibility for a specific task that they enjoy doing.
The user groups, especially the U3A, have a fantastic range of knowledge and expertise. We have to address issues and problems involved in running the Centre that we would appreciate relevant advice and support from the community.
How do you manage issue of access for people with disabilities?
We aim to make the Centre accessible and welcoming for everyone, especially to those with disabilities. We are always open to suggestions for improvements.
We have marked out parking spaces for disabled users to the rear of the building in the playground by the doors. These doors are on the level and do not have the steps seen at the front of the building. We are installing video phone access equipment to enable entry to be activated remotely from Reception. We have a hearing loop and PA system in the Hall, but this has its problems and similar facilities are needed elsewhere in the building.
As mentioned previously our major plan is to install a lift for access to the first floor. This is a major issue for the building as we cannot justify improving the facilities upstairs until we have the lift working to make them accessible to all.
We currently have a single disabled toilet at the North end of the site, and most of the remaining toilets are for children. We are now refurbishing the junior ladies toilets to provide 3 adult sized cubicles and 1 additional disabled toilet. We are also creating 3 more adult male toilets and a male disabled toilet in the same area. Once this work is completed, and the lift is installed we will refurbish the remaining toilets and provide disabled facilities on the first floor.
Why did you get involved?
I got involved when I was dragged along by my wife (a former pupil) to attend a public meeting in 2007 when the school was about to close. We looked around the building and discussed options for its future. Until then I had never really noticed the school as it was shrouded in vegetation. Inspired by the unique character of this Grade II listed building and at its potential as a community asset, I joined a working group that campaigned to turn the school into a community centre. It took 2 years to engage the community for support and to persuade the local authorities to transfer ownership to the Guardians of Strutts charity that we set up for the purpose. I became chairman of the trustees and have been here ever since. I feel passionately that this project is central to the well-being of the community of Belper. I have made a lot of very good friends here and it is very rewarding to see the activities that take place in Strutts. I feel that I am "doing my bit" for the community and helping others do theirs! I would like to take this opportunity to thank all our volunteers for their efforts and friendship over the years.
What are your greatest worries?
This project is one of the most significant contributions towards the provision of community facilities in Belper. With the Herbert Strutt School building we have a unique opportunity for our generation to create a fantastic community legacy for the town and surroundings. The greatest worry is that the community will not be able to sustain the effort required to pass it on to the next generation.
What is the funniest thing that has happened?
We have a lot of laughs at Strutts among friends. We have recognised that there is a lot of material here to create an entertaining TV "sit-com" about a community centre. When former pupils come to have a look around I always agree to let them in provided they tell a story about their time here. The anecdotes are always amusing and I am sure that we can all remember ones from our own schooldays.
Anything you would like to say that we haven't covered?
The Herbert Strutt School was officially opened by the Duke of Devonshire in May 1909, and was closed as a school in 2007.
We opened Strutts as a community centre on 23rd September 2009.
In the future it is unlikely that local authorities will be able to afford to support community leisure facilities at present levels with the current squeeze on the public purse. The community will end up with the facilities that it deserves. It is only by the community making the effort itself to provide these facilities that we will enjoy the quality of life that we would like to maintain.
U3A newsletter 0401009/05/2016
If this piece has given you a taste to get involved please contact Strutts Reception on 01773 599993 or email firstname.lastname@example.org