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Pilates group’s heartbreak at plans to demolish and redevelop Highgate Newtown Community Centre

PUBLISHED: 09:56 12 October 2018 | UPDATED: 11:21 12 October 2018

Protesters wave placards outside the Highgate Newtown Community Centre. Picture: Tim Megarry

Protesters wave placards outside the Highgate Newtown Community Centre. Picture: Tim Megarry

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Pulses have been racing at a pilates class in Highgate Newtown Community Centre (HNCC) for some time.

"When it's gone, it's gone" - placards outside the Highgate Newtown Community Centre last week. Picture: Tim Megarry

The Thursday morning group members were getting pretty excited again last week. When they finished their class in they took up placards and picketed their own centre in a “desperate plea” to stop the planned development replacing the Bertram Street building.

The former tank barracks for the Territorial Army and a former Second World War prisoner of war site has been used as a community hub for decades. But in recent years, uncertainty over its future – and Camden Council’s plans to redevelop it – have seen the number of classes fall.

Tamar Swade’s pilates group, though, has been going from strength to strength in more ways than one.

Her class is one of the last ones standing, and has used the site since 2008. The hall is also used by youth club, the Fresh Youth Academy (FYA), and has a gym, recording studio and computer room on site. The centre’s hall is listed as well.

The protesters are concerned about the size of the replacement community centre hall, as well as the continuation of other facilities. Picture: Frank ChalmersThe protesters are concerned about the size of the replacement community centre hall, as well as the continuation of other facilities. Picture: Frank Chalmers

“I feel enraged,” says former Camden mayor Mary Cane, who was one of the people protesting outside last week.

Camden’s plans, which are part of the Community Investment Programme (CIP), will see the entire site demolished and replaced with 40 homes.

CIP is halfway through its 15-year plan to regenerate parts of Camden. According to the town hall, it is investing more than £1billion in schools, council homes, and other community facilities. The money is funded by land sales, the Housing Revenue Account, borrowing and the sale of private homes.

The plans have to go back to planning committee as their initial sums didn’t give enough of a profit margin. A new hall will be included – but users we spoke said they felt it wouldn’t create the same sense of community.

Protesters campaigned outside the community centre after their Thursday morning pilates class. Picture: Tim MegarryProtesters campaigned outside the community centre after their Thursday morning pilates class. Picture: Tim Megarry

Joyce Byrne, who attends the weekly class, is one of many people who was advised to go for health reasons.

She suffers from depression and was told to attend the class by her doctor.

“When I was in hospital, I was told to try pilates, and to go out and mix with people,” she said. “I knew there was a class up and running so I came along.

“It has really helped me. I love people – and talking to them and giving them hugs, and this class, have given me that.”

The group of concerned pilates group members in the hall at the community centreThe group of concerned pilates group members in the hall at the community centre

Fellow class member Tim Megarry, 77, is one of many who comes for health reasons. “I had cancer in 2003, which led me to become more focused to lose weight and become more fit,” he said.

Another, Sally Donati, told the Ham&High: “We are all getting older and we want to stay as fit and healthy as possible. We are all people in our age group that don’t want to be a burden on the NHS.”

According to class members, the gathering once a week also serves as an information exchange for the group. “It’s not like you can walk up to somebody at a bus stop and talk about your arthritic knee,” explained Mary.

The community centre is something that runs in the blood, and many class members’ children used it before – and believe it benefits the local community.

“It’s somewhere parents and children can come from all walks of life,” said Catherine Wells, who uses the centre, and previously attended antenatal classes there. Her kids also used HNCC.

“We’ve got Dartmouth Park nearby which has areas there which are well-to-do and not.

“The children can all mix here, and so can the parents, who can rub up against all walks of life.”

Joyce added: “If the centre goes, it will be heartbreaking.

“They say people should exercise more, should get out more, and older people shouldn’t be so isolated. This is perfect – and yet they’re throwing it away. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

Cllr Danny Beales, Camden’s cabinet member in charge of CIP, said: “In the current proposed designs, FYA are set to receive a brand new purpose built facility with no loss of usable floor space. The latest design proposals will enable FYA to hold activities across a single floor.

“When complete, the scheme will offer a range of flexible spaces that can accommodate both groups hosting an even wider variety of activities from sports to arts.

“We are conscious of the gospel hall’s local significance. After FYA vacates the site, we will convert the hall into new homes. The sale of these will help pay for the new and improved facilities at HNCC, enabling groups like FYA to continue offering services for years to come.”

HNCC chairman Robert Aitken said: “We appreciate the concerns of our community and users but remain, as a board, convinced that this is a one-off opportunity to provide a fantastic brand new community centre.

“The recent inclusion of Camden living units in the development and adjustments to take account of the impact on immediate neighbours are particularly welcome.”

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