Fears for future of Welwyn Garden City community base

Ludwick Family Club centre manager Jill Weston, chair of trustees Zacha Hennessey, chair of Welwyn H

Ludwick Family Club centre manager Jill Weston, chair of trustees Zacha Hennessey, chair of Welwyn Hatfield Chamber of Commerce Nick Brown, treasurer Margaret Birleson. - Credit: Archant

The future of a charity that has helped community groups in Welwyn Garden City for more than 50 years is increasingly doubtful, as a council deal reached two years ago is proving unsustainable.

Trustees of the Ludwick Family Club, which since the 1950s has provided an affordable venue in Hall Grove for all kinds of community groups, are struggling to pay the rent, which the borough council sharply increased in early 2015.

The annual rent was increased from £1,000 to £22,000, although the furore persuaded the council to introduce a relief, starting at 80 per cent, and tapering to zero over 11 years.

The club currently sublets to at least 15 groups, including exercise classes, a popular dance group, the University of the Third Age, and Welwyn Islamic Society.

Trustee and treasurer Margaret Birleson, who is a Labour borough councillor, said: “We simply can’t afford this massive increase and the people who use it just can’t afford any more rent increases to pay for the council’s rent demands.

“The Ludwick Family Club is a great community facility which should be valued for providing activities for people of all ages, yet the council is choosing to let it go to the wall rather than helping us to improve local people’s lives.”

The trustees met council leader John Dean last month to beg for further relief, but left fruitless.

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Nick Brown, chairman of Welwyn Hatfield Chamber of Commerce, said: “It shows a complete lack of judgement and vision. They [the council] don’t listen because it is easier not to. That is not good enough.”

With the relief, the current rent is £7,300 a year, but Councillor Jill Weston, who is employed to run it, said the club will be able to pay future increases only by dipping into reserves.

A council spokeswoman responded: “We met with the club and agreed to review their situation again if circumstances change, as it was felt the club’s financial position is currently secure.

“The club is not paying market rent and, in recognition of the value they offer to the community, is receiving a support package from us totalling £130,000 over ten years.

“Amid growing pressures on the public purse, we must be fair to all community groups in the borough by encouraging them to operate more sustainably.

“Many organisations using the facility are commercial hirers and we believe the club still has potential to raise more income, as well as reducing its costs.

“This support has to be viewed within the harsh realities of a challenging economic climate in which all organisations must work towards financial self-sufficiency.”