The children’s nursery in Whitfield Street is to close at the end of this week after more than ten years of serving the community with the loss of 25 places for under-fives because of a disagreement between two charities over improvements to the building and plans to redevelop the site.
A new childcare provider is now being sought to fill the vacant building which is the only children’s nursery in Camden’s Bloomsbury ward and is regarded as an important facility for local families and people working in the area.
Camden Council which owns the freehold closed the previous nursery on the site in 2005 and wanted to sell the land for redevelopment. But after a campaign by local people the Fitzrovia Trust property charity acquired a 20-year lease on the site and refurbished the existing building.
It was re-opened as a nursery in 2008 after the Trust made an agreement with the London Early Years Foundation (LEYF) charity which now runs 37 nurseries across London. An Ofsted inspection of the Fitzrovia Community Nursery in February 2018 rated it as “Good”.
However, in June this year parents and carers of the children at the nursery — which is running at nearly full capacity — were told it would close at the end of August and they were invited to discuss future childcare available at the LEYF’s other sites.
Mike Abbott a director of children’s services at LEYF explained that the closure was “due to Camden and the Fitzrovia Trust’s regeneration plans for the area”.
This led to people speculating about the future of the site and rumours spread that once again a chunk of Fitzrovia was coming to market and the money men were circling like vultures and eager to build yet more luxury apartments.
One parent contacted Fitzrovia News to say: “This is a huge shock and once again property developers are given priority over the needs of the community”.
Yet the truth of the matter is more mundane and boils down to a disagreement between the two charities as they both try to meet their charitable objectives at a time of rising property prices and other difficulties.
According to its 2017 annual report the Fitzrovia Trust wants to build a new nursery, improve the playground, and construct up to 13 flats to be let at social rents. There are no plans for luxury flats but LEYF would have had to vacate the building while construction is in progress.
The Trust is still negotiating with Camden Council to acquire a 125 year lease on the land and is yet to submit any planning application to develop the site. It is unlikely that any redevelopment will take place for at least another two or three years.
Meanwhile LEYF had its own plans for the nursery and wanted to reconfigure the layout so that it could improve the space to meet the demand for more children aged under two years and comply with health and safety requirements.
While both charities strenuously denied there was any dispute between the two of them they both issued conflicting statements to Fitzrovia News.
Mike Abbott of LEYF said: “After careful consultation with Fitzrovia Trust, sadly we were unable to secure an additional five year lease for the property and it is therefore with deep regret that Fitzrovia Community Nursery is to close at the end of August 2018.”
However Colin Bascom director of the Fitzrovia Trust said an agreement had been reached but LEYF had then changed their minds.
“Both sides agreed that the simplest arrangement would be to agree a new 5-year lease but insert a break clause exercisable by us that would allow for any potential redevelopment of the site. The lease was in fact signed.
“We also provided a written undertaking to LEYF that they would move back in. Furthermore, it was agreed that we would involve LEYF in designing the new nursery.
“It came to light that LEYF subsequently had a change of heart but this occurred after signing the new lease. Acting in good faith, we have since agreed a compromise solution with LEYF that allows them to move out without strictly holding them to the notice period they would have been required to give to us under the terms of the new lease,” he said.
Both the LEYF and the Fitzrovia Trust have faced challenges over the past decade but the two organisations have until now worked together to bring community benefit.
LEYF has made a loss in each of the past five years as it sought to expand its nursery provision and faced increasing costs due to changes in government legislation which made it difficult to recruit qualified staff.
Its 2017 annual report stated that the employment of agency staff to make up the shortfall had “significantly increased our payroll costs resulting in £2.3m in agency costs, £1.5m above budget”.
The report noted “there is an increasing risk of over commitment of resources, both operationally and financially” but that the risk was being carefully managed.
The Fitzrovia Trust also described the challenges it faces.
Nick Bailey, a member of the Trust board said: “Property prices within Fitzrovia have risen steeply in the last few years with no sign of abating. This has militated against our efforts to provide new affordable housing.
“The Whitfield Street site is a unique opportunity to provide a new, purpose-built nursery as well as affordable housing which will be a direct benefit to the community in Fitzrovia. This is not property speculation but development in the interests of the local community.”
The Fitzrovia Trust says it is continuing to negotiate with Camden Council to build a new nursery and homes and will be seeking another nursery provider, or an alternative, temporary use, when the building is vacated by LEYF.
LEYF says that staff from the Fitzrovia Nursery will be employed in its other nurseries, and all children will be offered places. The nearest alternative nurseries run by LEYF are at 10 Carburton Street at Holcroft Court and 23 Brewer Street in Soho.
“While government funding and qualifications policies have placed additional strain on the organisation over the past two years we have strengthened our leadership and management teams, improved our financial performance and are looking forward to continued growth,” says LEYF.