The closure of the much-loved Isabel Blackman day centre in Winding Street reduced many of its older users to tears 17 months ago. Now it could soon reopen its doors if a community bid to buy it is successful.

Volunteers have raised the £450,000 needed to buy the building from current owner East Sussex County Council (ESCC), and say they are cautiously optimistic they will complete the purchase over the next few weeks.

PICTURE: Colin Gibson

A partnership of Hastings Voluntary Action (HVA), Age UK East Sussex, Hastings and St Leonards Seniors’ Forum and Hastings Old Town Residents’ Association (HOTRA) has created a new company IBC–In Perpetuity, to hold, develop and manage the building, thus ensuring its long term future for community use. Its registration with the Charities Commission has been submitted and awaits approval.

“Like the purchase of any property – there is still much to be done,” said the partnership in a statement on Hastings Voluntary Action’s website. 

“We are not there yet but we did feel we had reached a point where we could share some potentially exciting news with those who have supported this endeavour.”

Closure

A profile of older people published by ESCC in 2018 showed that Hastings has the highest percentage of over 60s living in poverty in the county. The same report predicted that by 2020 more than 55,000 people across the county over 65 would be living alone.

Despite these figures, ESCC closed the centre – which was providing day care and support services to around 70 older citizens – in March last year as part of measures to cut costs from its Adult Social Care budget. 

In June 2019 ESCC decided to sell the building, prompting a petition which gained 166 signatures asking ESCC to recognise that “the Isabel Blackman Centre is a unique and historic asset which was created largely by charitable donations to serve local people.” 

The petition also requested that the council enter into discussions with voluntary and community organisations to ensure the building was retained as a resource for the wider community.

Asset of community value

Following the closure, Hastings Old Town Residents Association had swiftly listed the building in April 2019 with Hastings Borough Council as an Asset of Community Value. This triggered a moratorium preventing any potential sale until December 2019 giving volunteers time to launch a fundraising drive. 

Meanwhile, HOTRA Chairman Dick Edwards sent out a letter of appeal to residents and their contacts, while publicity in local media prompted donations ranging from £20 to £1,000 to pour in from members of the public. 

Larger lump sums were also donated by two trusts and a private donor.

A total of £400,000 was pledged, with around £30,000 of that coming from people who did not live in Hastings. A further sum is due from the Inland Revenue Gift Aid scheme, meaning the company will have raised sufficient funds to pay the £450,000 price agreed with ESCC.

“I’ve done a lot of fundraising things in my life but I’ve never had such a quick and strong response on a project as this”, said Mr Edwards. “I think people have always regarded the Isabel Blackman Centre as theirs, it is a key part of the social fabric of Hastings.”

Obstacles

There are still a number of obstacles to overcome. Whilst the company has opened a bank account, it is not yet in a position to collect the pledges until the Charity Commission gives it a number.

Solicitors have been appointed to complete the sale and a holding deposit of £45,000 has been given to ESCC.

A further appeal is due to be launched to raise funds for building  repairs, including fixing the leaking roof and refurbishment of the upstairs flat, which the company plans to rent out. 

Volunteers will also need to replace the commercial kitchen, worth £30,000, that was removed or stolen during the period of closure.

A transition planning group has also been set up to look at making the building Covid-secure, and to establish the timeframe in which it could be made available to local groups. 

Optimistic

However, volunteers remain optimistic that their plans will come to fruition and that services for older people will soon be resumed.

“This building has not just been a part of the Old Town, but provision for pensioners across the town for over 100 years,” said Mr Edwards.

“It’s still very much wanted by both the pensioners and their families – it’s somewhere to go, it’s safe and secure, and it gives them a chance to reminisce. It’s a key part of their lives. 

“We know when it was closed there were a lot of tears, and we’ve got to put some smiles back.”

If the purchase is completed, it is hoped that services such as light lunches, support and advice will be provided there for two days a week, with further services being provided from the refurbished Central Hall in the town centre three days a week. The space will also available for hire to various community groups.

A spokesperson for ESCC said: “Negotiations on the sale of the Isabel Blackman Centre  are at a very advanced stage but for reasons of commercial confidentiality we cannot confirm the purchaser.”

Donations are still welcome. To donate, contact: [email protected]g.uk


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