Northern Ireland

Artillery Youth Centre 'must hand back building' to BELB

Girl at computer in Artillery Youth Centre
Image caption The club provides educational and recreational facilities for marginalised young people

A north Belfast youth club is facing an uncertain future after staff received a letter saying they must give back the building by the end of this month.

The Artillery Youth Centre opened in the New Lodge area in 1969 and works with young people from marginalised communities.

Youth worker Harry Murphy said the Belfast Education and Library Board (BELB) has informed them they must leave the building on Victoria Parade.

BELB said there were "major health and safety concerns" about the state of the building and no funds were available to carry out the substantial work required on the premises.

The board said it had kept the club's management fully informed of the process since 2011.

The chairman of Stormont's education committee said he would contact the board to ask them to reconsider their decision.

The centre provides educational opportunities and recreational facilities for young people aged between 15 and 25 and was initially conceived to prevent teenagers in the area from becoming involved in sectarian violence and "recreational rioting".

It has a youth-run cyber cafe and also provides courses and outreach programmes for young parents, young offenders and "school refusers".

'Strange decision'

However, staff have been told in the letter they must hand the keys of the building back to the BELB by 31 August.

Mr Murphy said: "We found that disconcerting - a very strange decision on behalf of the board because we've been running a very successful youth project out of here for the past 15 years with minimal amount of resources coming from the board.

"I mean we don't really get any wages from the board, we don't get any overheads, they don't really pay for very much in here."

The centre was built 43 years ago by Belfast Corporation and in 1997 the club was handed over to a group of young volunteers from the New Lodge area who formed a steering group.

The steering group has had responsibility for the day-to-day running of the centre for the past 15 years and has helped to provide courses in youth leadership, childcare, drugs awareness, first aid, web design, and DJ skills.

Mr Murphy said that during this period, BELB's "basic role was to look after the fabric of the building".

He told BBC Radio Ulster that staff had not yet "received a full explanation" for the BELB's decision to take back the premises.

"What we've been told is that the building is surplus to requirements and that may well be the board's case - that it is surplus to their requirements - but it's certainly not surplus to the requirements of this community," Mr Murphy added.

'Badly handled'

The centre has fostered an ethos in which the young people who use the facilities are asked to give something back, through volunteering to work with younger club members.

Anna-Marie Burns was a single mother in her teens when she was contacted through the club's outreach programme for young parents.

She said she had come out of school "with no education at all" but felt welcome at the club and "thrived" through its educational courses, including a youth exchange trip to South Africa.

Ms Burns is now a part-time youth worker at the centre.

The chair of Stormont's education committee, Mervyn Storey, told BBC Radio Ulster that the issue had been "handled very badly" by the BELB.

"It seems as though organisations don't seem to fully understand the implications of these decisions that they make, and the announcements that they make, in terms of the impact that it has on communities," he said.

The DUP MLA added that he would "certainly be asking the board to look again at this situation to ensure that the progress that has been made by the group in north Belfast is enhanced rather than hindered by the actions of the Belfast board".

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