Grass Roots Campainers Fight for Royal Park Primary, Leeds

In the heart of Hyde Park, Leeds, sits the decaying structure of Royal Park Primary School. One of the city’s most controversial buildings; it is a tragic silhouette of former glory, a monument to council neglect and broken promises. Closed down in 2004 amid fervent public outcry, the former school has now become the epicenter of an impassioned struggle between the local people and a development department steeped in controversy. After a brief occupation and high profile public eviction from the building, campaigners now wait with baited breath as their official bid is scrutinized by the Council.

In their Strategic Plan for 2008-2011, Leeds City Council pledge a commitment to “improved community cohesion and integration through meaningful involvement and… empowering people to communicate in decision making”. But these impressive concepts carry the hollow ring of empty propaganda to residents of this neglected ward. The threat of another school closure looms ominously over the horizon. But the residents of Hyde Park continue to fight for the social justice they feel has been so routinely denied them. Many of the parents who fought to save Royal Park Primary now head a defiant struggle to save City of Leeds. Closure would leave no local high schools in the area and sap at an already diminished sense of community.

When protesters lost their battle to keep Royal Park open, they were assured the school would be reopened as a community resource. But five years later, the much loved building stands in a pitiful state of disrepair. Its beautiful Victorian fabric has been ravaged by the elements and destroyed by vandals. A council policy of willful neglect has resulted in shattered windows and rotten interiors. Disturbingly, eight canister s of methyl alcohol were found in and around the school. The highly flammable substance is commonly used in arson attacks. It had been placed in the direct path of local children for whom the grounds are a popular playground.

When it became painfully apparent that authorities had no intention of saving Royal Park from ruin, a group of local people took matters into their own hands. In early October 2009 the group began a planned occupation of the building. They were unwilling to sit by and watch this much needed asset be condemned, torn down and sold to private developers who had no concern for the needs of local people. In just one week they had done more for the school than the council has managed in half a decade, turning an eye sore and potential death trap into a thriving community centre. Through a programme of public meetings, fundraising events and diverse workshops the space became a force for much needed social cohesion. The Royal Park Community Group carried a clear message to the authorities: “Our community is not for sale!”

But the council pursued a ruthless and dictatorial course of action. Occupants were swiftly evicted from the school. The time, money and energy invested by the community seemed to count for nothing. Within weeks the beating heart of the community had once again been snuffed out by iron forces from within Leeds City Council.

That communities robbed of their assets suffer greatly is a long proven truth. And there can be no doubt that Hyde Park is in desperate need of such assets. This is an area which has suffered deep cultural riffs over the years. Accusations by the media of Muslim extremism have damaged trust between Asian and whites. The embittered riots of summer 2004 remain a painful memory for many residents of the area. And the closure of Royal Park, one of the few public resources which brought communities together in happy interaction, can only have worsened this feeling of fragmentation.

But there is a deep desire by members of Hyde Park to overcome this lack of cohesion. In recent years we have seen the advent of ‘Unity Day’, an arts and music festival which celebrates local diversity. It has proved a triumph and swells in popularity year after year. But according to Shanazz Begum, a local mother of five, more needs to be done “there is a real desire for people to mix but we can’t do it alone, we need the council working with us rather than against us”.

Walk around Hyde Park and there is little evidence of vibrant community interaction. The transient and heavily saturated student population spill from the pubs and house parties. Asian children filter in twos and threes from the nearby Mosque. White parents weave their pushchairs around dirty streets cluttered high with takeaway cartons and discarded furniture. The need for thriving community resources is palpable. It feels an awfully long way from the gleaming department stores and carefully tended streets of the city centre. In pursuing an agenda of profit over community, it is easy to see people feel the Council has sold them down the river.

Shanazz Begum points out that without local schools or community resources “there is no link up between people, a sense of community vanishes and this means a downward spiral for our children”. Parents have expressed grave concerns about the future of their children in an area where there is nothing to keep them off the streets. Adele Beeson, whose children attended Royal Park Primary, explains “the school was a central hub of the community and brought all cultures together. Young people have become more isolated. There is the real fear that young people are turning back to crime. When young people feel supported and engaged by their community these kind of problems don’t occur”. Community fragmentation has been identified as one of the main factors in youth crime. And yet despite the council receiving funds for community projects, little of this money seems to be filtering down to the people would benefit most.

When asked what a community centre could do for local people Shanazz Begum says; “There is a huge demand for activities to keep girls and boys off the streets whether the council acknowledge it or not. With no local schools or resources people become more nuclear. No one knows one another. We need more regeneration of positive behavior”. Royal Park Community Group want to see the former school turned into a space which unites people as citizens, empowering them to play a fuller role in society. They believe that by bringing people together the space can rebuild social cohesion and create opportunities to get involved in positive activities.

It is becoming increasingly difficult for the Council to ignore the demands of the local people. At the very least they have shown the authorities that they won’t sit quietly whilst their community is sold out from under them. You can be sure that whatever the next move of the council, the collective will driving these campaigns will not easily be broken. In these times of political apathy and isolation, the people of Hyde Park are proof that community organization can still be a force to be reckoned with.

More about the author, Heather Kennedy, here.

By: Heather Kennedy, 13.02.2010 | Comments (0)
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