The CEO of a community project that aims to steer vulnerable young people away from gangs, drugs and knife crime is staging a sit-in at its under-threat Stockport centre.
N-Gage: Life – also known as n:gl – has been told to leave its home at Merseyway by landlord Stockport council as it wants to begin work on a new £14.5m cultural hub.
But David Schofield, who co-founded the programme, says he is staying put until the authority’s chief executive Pam Smith gives him an explanation, claiming bosses have reneged on earlier promises. The council disputes his claims.
N:gl has been based at ‘indoor sports arena’ The Players Entrance since July last year, which handed over the facility to n:gl when the pandemic put it out of action.
The council says that The Players Entrance had always been aware permission to use the unit was on a temporary basis and it would have to be handed back if government funding was secured for the hub.
It also gave The Players Entrance – set up by Steve Mottershead – two month’s notice and understood this was relayed to n:gl.
This is not under dispute, but Mr Schofield claims the council had previously agreed to a six-month notice period and to find n:gl suitable alternative building. The council says they had only agreed two months notice, which was given.
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But Mr Schofield claims the longer notice period had been agreed by a senior town hall boss and had been followed up in an email to Mr Mottershead, which has been seen by the Local Democracy Reporting Service.
The exact details of the lease are still at the centre of a legal wrangle, with both sides trading solicitors letters over recent days.
However, Mr Schofield says the council’s assertion that n:gl was occupying the building without its consent is ‘utterly ridiculous’ .
He describes the council’s decision to change the locks last Thursday as an ‘incredibly aggressive act’ – particularly given n:gl was in talks with the authority about finding a new home.
The council has also carried out asbestos tests, which caused damage to graffiti by Manchester artists Kelzo.
The former-teacher insists he will continue his sit-in – which began on Thursday after being allowed back into the building to create an itinerary and retrieve a server – until he has an explanation from Ms Smith over recent events or the two parties come to an acceptable compromise.
N:gl says it has invested thousands of pounds in the unit, including the installation of a mixed martial arts centre, a music studio, upcycling facilities and a cafe. Mr Schofield says it would not have done so without the agreement it believed to be in place.
Many of the young people referred to the service have been excluded from school and struggled to make progress in a pupil referral unit.
Mr Schofield says n:gl has achieved ‘amazing’ results turning youngsters’ lives around and says he is astonished by the situation.
“The place is phenomenal, it’s an incredible success story and something Stockport should be proud of – this is where the issue seems to be,” he said.
“We are providing a service at no cost to the council – it was an empty building costing them money for the upkeep. We have moved into the building with their permission and it looks beautiful, everything looks right.”
He also says he fails to understand why the council cannot offer n:gl space in buildings it owns – including the former Debenhams building and units at Red Rock.
He said: “There’s clearly a conversation at the council that we are not privy to. There’s something been said and discussed because they have never given us a reason for moving us out.
“I understand things go wrong and things happen but I’m absolutely furious with them. I can’t tell you how upset I am for the whole thing.”
The council has told the n:gl it will empty the Merseyway unit and charge it for storage costs.
While Mr Schofield expects the legal position will eventually be resolved, he believes the council has a ‘moral obligation’ to the youngsters who use the n:gl centre.
“To not even come down and look at what we have built in the midst of this agreement we have entered into – to not have the courtesy to come down and see what it is and say ‘yes, this is magnificent’.
“An immense amount of work has gone into this. It’s going to take a hell of a lot of unravelling. To kick us out in a week is ridiculous.”
N:gl has asked for a month’s pause to allow both parties to ‘negotiate in good faith’ but the council has not changed its position.
“This is devastating to this service and devastating to the kids we support,” said Mr Schofield.
“This is a kid’s charity spending money on solicitors’ letters. It’s a disaster, it’s not what we exist for.
“I’m not wanting anything other than to give us what they said they would – six month’s notice and alternative building. A temporary solution is fine, we are all right with a temporary solution as long as there’s good faith engagement taking place.”
A spokesperson for Stockport council said: “The council agreed that The Players’ Entrance could use the property on a temporary basis and have always been clear with them that the property was part of the council’s Future High Street Fund bid and it would be required back if this was successful.
“Stockport was awarded £14.5 million of Government grant to deliver a transformational scheme in the town centre, this will see around 135,000 sq ft of vacant retail space around Adlington Walk repurposed as a new social, community and cultural hub.
“This is why possession of the property is now needed, as enabling works are due to commence to deliver this scheme.
“The Players’ Entrance were given two months’ notice of this and the above was explained to them and we believe that they informed N:gage Life, who had been allowed occupation without the council’s consent, of the same.”
N:g is also fundraising to continue its work – you can donate here.