How has the pandemic affected the local voluntary sector? In a two part series, Covid-19 Community Reporter Paris Ali-Pilling interviews Allison Udy, Centre Manager for Milton Village Community Association. In part one, Allison explains how Covid-19 has affected the Centre.
Paris: Can you tell me briefly what your organisation is, and what it does in the local community?
Allison: It’s a Community Centre and a registered charity. The remit for most centres is to serve a geographical area within Portsmouth, although lots of them overlap, and other people from all over the city do use all the centres. You like to think it’s sort of the hub of the area and people gather here. It gives people an opportunity, especially those on their own, to come along and join others, as well as providing all the usual activities such as exercise groups and social groups, and there’s a coffee shop on site as well.
Do you have a library?
We have a library next door, Beddow Library. We try to work together where we can.
You said you’re a registered charity, you’re not run by the Council at all?
No, it’s a Council building and there’s a peppercorn rent, so we don’t have to pay anything. The Council are responsible for the building and we’re responsible for the interiors. We have an appointed support officer within the city and we have to follow guidelines, and they make sure we’re running correctly and nothing illegal is happening. So, they do oversee us in a way but basically, we’re independent and they let us get on with it.
[Peppercorn rent is] essentially an agreement where the Council will let organisations use their buildings, they don’t charge but there’s a lease in place. I think ours is 21 years. The city used to provide the community centre services, and they still do, a couple of them. But as time passed, budgets were cut and they could no longer afford to do that for most so they gave the buildings to local people to run the centres.
What financial impact has the pandemic had on your organisation?
Absolutely huge, because we closed in March and reopened in September. So absolutely no income at all for six months. We’re still paying wages but we’re on the furlough scheme so at the moment, the government are paying most of the wages which includes me the manager, my admin assistant and two cleaners. The Association is kindly topping our wages up to 100% at the moment.
Some groups have started back but there’s less than half the revenue from groups we would normally have and we have no private hire either. That hasn’t returned at all so we are losing about £200 a week from that alone. We also have quite a comprehensive programme of trips and holidays, which is why most of our members join. That produces about £5000 a year to support the Centre. We’ve lost all of that as well so we could be in dire straits if this carries on until March .
About the trips and holidays, how does that work? Is it like a membership programme?
You don’t have to be part of the Association. I started it as a bit of a voluntary aspect of the job because the Centre was a little old hall and there was not much going on. I started a few day trips, and now it’s a major part of the Centre. Some of the work is within normal work hours but there’s a lot of voluntary time needed to get it organised. We probably do 25 to 30 trips a year. Some of them are holidays in the UK and abroad, and lots of day trips and theatres, that sort of thing.
We don’t look to run it on a commercial basis, but we do look to try and make a little bit of money on each to help fundraise towards the Centre. Anyone is allowed to come but if you’re a member you get priority booking because some will sell out within hours and it’s a little bit cheaper than non-members.
You’re doing that to help run the Centre?
Yes, absolutely. To begin, it was more that there wasn’t anything to offer and we were supposed to have a membership system in place. We started offering bits and pieces like that for people to have something to do. And it just grew. Now, people do mainly join for the trip programme.
So effectively if you’re doing 25 to 30 trips a year, you’re doing that every other week?
Yeah, it’s a lot of work, but it’s what they expect. It seems the more you do, the more they want. Which is why we used to welcome members from anywhere, doesn’t matter where they lived but in 2016 we had to restrict membership to the geographical area we were serving, because there were too many people joining. I started having to book three coaches for each trip, which is far too much to manage. However, this month, September, to help with funds, we’ve opened membership back up and invited anyone to join, no matter where you live, and we’ve been inundated! So I’ll have to worry about numbers and coaches next year!
That’s why we’ve got people from all over the city wanting to join, because it’s not the normal thing for community centres. I know some may put the odd day trip on, but we had a lot of resistance from the Council for a long time about doing this, but we only really responded to what people wanted. A couple of other centres have now started organising some trips like the Havelock Centre and the Stacy Centre, and I’m happy to help when they contact me for advice.
You have briefly covered this, but in more detail, how has Covid-19 and the lockdown affected the services you deliver?
We’re classed as a Crisis Centre. In times of disaster and catastrophe, we would expect people to gather here, and that’s what we’re all about, getting together. But COVID is the complete opposite. It’s really difficult because you always assume in times of crisis, you would have support and people get together and it’s just not that way. All these people who are on their own and went through COVID and lockdown alone, we can’t do anything for them and it now looks like we’re going back that way again.
In July and August things started to ease and open up and we desperately wanted to say, ‘Come on in, we’ll throw a party’, and we still can’t do that. It’s very frustrating. Again, there’s really no social stuff going on. I’m glad we have the coffee shop so people can still come in and we have a chance to say hello.
I can’t wait to get back to normal – we’ve got a good following – and get back to the social side of things. We’ve got some of the groups back, but they’re more the keep fit groups. There is a mother and toddlers group but it’s more the active exercise side rather than the social.
Are you still classed as a Crisis Centre even with Covid-19?
Yes, but it doesn’t apply during COVID. We can’t gather during COVID. If there was, say, major flooding in an area and people had to get out, then they could come here for shelter and things like that. That hasn’t applied here, no one was allowed in the building for six months.
S&C has been awarded funding from the European Journalism Centre Covid-19 Support Fund to explore the social impact of Covid-19 on diverse communities and sectors in Portsmouth:
- voluntary sector, including charities, community groups and social enterprises
- small businesses and self-employed people
- BAME communities
- people with disabilities
We have also been awarded funding from the Public Interest News Foundation Emergency Fund to explore the social impact of Covid-19 on migrants, and asylum seekers and refugees.