Reading’s Caribbean Associations Group (CAG) and Aspire CIC have decided on political action in the aftermath of Reading Borough Council’s controversial sale of the Central Club to property developers Red Line Land.
Aspire CIC made two bids for the old Central Club on London Street, which had been an Afro-Caribbean club before it was closed in 2006, but both bids were rejected by Reading Borough Council (RBC).
“I am distraught, ” said Aspire chair Keith Kerr. “The council seems to be able to do whatever it wants. Councillor Sophia James has said that we are raising the spectre of race. I want to say unambiguously that I am. I’m doing it because we [Reading’s Afro-Caribbean community] don’t have anything of our own.”
Aspire have also made a freedom of information (FOI) request of RBC to release information about how bids were evaluated; Aspire suspects that the community services they offered as part of their bid were undervalued.
“Best value does not mean the most money and the highest bidder,” said Aspire company secretary Pol Exeter. “Under law, when a local authority disposes of its assets it should consider social and environmental aspects too.”
“Aspire bid £875,000; the winning bid was one million pounds, or thereabouts,” he said. “The community value that Aspire would have contributed to RBC’s strategic priorities were worth significantly more than the £125,000 difference between the bids.”
Keith Kerr said that he was unsure that the cost of a new legal challenge against RBC’s decision was worth it, as the best outcome Aspire could expect would be for the council to run the bidding again, and the worst could be many hundreds of thousands of pounds of costs.
A ‘coalition of the disaffected’ looks for better representation
Keith Kerr said he wanted to form a ‘coalition of the disaffected’ comprised of organisations and community groups who feel ignored or damaged by RBC and need better political representation.
“I think the fight and debate must now move into politics”, he said. “There are a burgeoning group of people who want to show the politicians in the council that we won’t take this lying down. Starting at the next May election, we want to fight three seats – Councillor Page‘s, [Abbey ward], Councillor James‘ [Katesgrove ward] and Councillor Skeats‘ [Thames ward].”
“We really ought to try to unseat the incumbents in these three seats,” said Pol Exeter. “They’ve made some very disparaging remarks about the community. Many people from a Caribbean background automatically vote Labour, and I think we need to be looking at that again. We need to let them know that we will not be taken for granted. We need to put up our own candidates or support candidates who support our cause. It’s clear that the Labour party in Reading is not supporting our cause because every Labour councillor voted against Aspire’s acquiring the land.”
“We’ve had very much the same experience as you,” said Peter Burt from the Save Arthur Hill Pool campaign. “We worked very hard to get the pool reopened, but the council would have none of it. There is a lot of dissatisfaction amongst our members about how the council has behaved.”
A potted history
CAG set up Aspire CIC to bid for the disused Central Club on London Street in 2016, but RBC rejected all bids and announced their decision to put the site on the open market instead. RBC said that Aspire had made no cash offer; in a letter to the council in October 2017, Aspire clarified that their cash offer was £371,000.
In October 2017, Keith Kerr had said that Aspire wouldn’t bid for a second time as that would legitimise RBC’s decision to void a bidding process that Aspire had won.
Aspire succeeded in listing the black history mural, on the Mill Lane wall of the Central Club, as an asset of community value in December 2017, and RBC has made public assurances that the mural will be preserved irrespective of who owns of the building.
Aspire made a new bid in spring 2018, but RBC chose to sell the Central Club to Red Line Land.