Building of the community centre 1981 - 1983

By Fran Dennison

The Community Centre was built at a time of high unemployment especially in the building trades. The national unemployment rate in 1981 was 9.6%, the rate of inflation was 12.5% and the bank base rate was 14.3%. These were turbulent times for the national economy.

In order to try and alleviate the unemployment problem the government had set up a quango in 1973 the 'Manpower Services Commission'. Its purpose was to support local bodies in improving their areas by paying the wages of any necessary workforce in partnership with local Job Centres. The towns/villages/organisations involved had to provide materials and all other finance.

Lostwithiel Town Councillor Rex Stephens instigated the town taking part in the scheme and thus the Community Association was formed and the Community Centre was built.

In the following account of the building of the Centre no names have been revealed in case of libel claims!

One of the stipulations of the scheme was that all the workforce must have been unemployed for at least six months. I became involved having just completed a full time business administration course at St Austell college and took up the post of Site Manager knowing very little about the building trade but knowing how to obtain the very best prices from suppliers and how to calculate wages and keep accounts, (luckily I had a very good friend who was currently building houses in Milton Keynes he was a great help in advising on materials etc.)

Building work started in the middle of September having been held up because the Town Council had omitted to sign the lease of the land over to the Community Association.

A small caravan had been purchased for an office and a site foreman had been employed. On entering the caravan my first morning I was greeted by the foreman who had put a bracelet on the table, each section was a locket and had instructions inside for what must be done if he became ill. There were lots of instructions and lots of illnesses. I said was not at all happy with the situation having no medical training at all. Two weeks later he left, he said the build was too stressful.

All the plans and quantity surveyor's costings provided by the architect were in the caravan on that first morning. Meg Breckon and the fundraising committee had been given the overall sum of money to be raised. The first item on the costings list said 'Foundations £l,200'. The architect was contacted, as the foundations for a garage would cost more than that. "Just a typing error" he said "it should be £l2,000." Not a good omen for the fundraisers, another £10,000 to raise.

A second foreman was employed, he was very good and worked out graphs and charts as to when and how many workers should be employed, This had all to be done in the morning as, after lunch in the pub, he was useless in the afternoons, he lasted about four months. The previous six months had been spent 'drying out'.

The third foreman was excellent and he stayed with us for the entire build. He was a carpenter by trade and had been with us since the start of the project. His reason for being unemployed was that he had been building a house for his family as well as working but whilst he was house building his wife was having as affair so he took time out to finish the house so that it could be sold.

The groundwork was started and men employed. They were a motley crew and there were many different reasons why they had been unemployed for six months. Some were excellent and worked hard and for others work was the last thing they wanted. A bricklayer was interviewed and told he could start work the following Monday. He said he couldn't work on Tuesday as he was taking his mother shopping so it was agreed he would start work on Wednesday. The next week he didn't come to work on Tuesday. When confronted he said that he had told me that he took his mother shopping on Tuesdays, it was pointed out to him that a taxi was cheaper than a lost day's pay.

One of the labourers was dyslexic and would write his name with all the right letters but in a totally random order.

One labourer's wife would come to the site every Friday to collect his wages. She asked me not to give them to him as she and their children wouldn't see much of it by the time he got home.

An electrician was looking at the plans the wrong way up, I asked him if he had only wired houses in the past he said "No, buses": he had trained as an electrician on London buses, had moved to Comwall and wondered why he couldn't find a job. Luckily a local electrician took him under his wing and the eventual wiring passed all the required tests.

A bricklayer hadn't worked for six months because he refused to earn money to pay maintenance to his ex-wife who had left him for someone far richer than he was, but the D.S.S. had told him that if he did not take this job his benefits would be stopped. After about a month police arrived on the site and arrested him for non-payment of maintenance. He was a good bricklayer, I tried to persuade the authorities that if he was in prison his ex-wife would get nothing anyway, but to no avail. The M.S.C. were contacted regarding what to do with the man's wages the accountant said that they would leave it to my discretion. On investigation, the man was found to be living with a girl friend who was pregnant but he also had an ex-partner who had two children who he was meant to be supporting although she was now living with someone else so the wages were divided between these two. Ex-wife got nothing.

One chap, a labourer, went to the Elephant Fair and came back as high as could be and sat in a wheelbarrow all day for three days. We had a long talk and he left.

When the building was started the stone wall adjacent to the road had to be demolished and the stones stored in a pile. When we were near completion a labourer who was a very hard worker but very shy, he had hardly spoken at all through all the months of work, asked if he could rebuild the wall he said it was something he really thought he could do so we let him have a go. He did an excellent job and at the finish of the building the foreman and I gave hirn very good references hoping he might find a job dry stone walling. About four years later on 'South West News' there was an article regarding the cost to the County Council of a dry stone wall which had been built adjacent to a new road. It had cost £X and only took a week to build. In answer to the criticism there, on the T.V. was our labourer he now had his own business and he explained that as the weather was good he, and a young lad he was training, had started work at six every morning and worked until nine every night so, counting the man hours, the council had received a very good deal. He was very articulate and trounced the critics. A success! We felt extremely proud of him.

The most extraordinary incident of all regarding the workforce didn't come to light until a while after we had completed the work. One of the former workmen was arrested for the murder of his landlord and burying him under a patio in their garden he then continued to draw the man's pension for several years. The murder had happened whilst he was working on the centre.

There was one crisis which stands out in particular. When digging a trench beside the road the driver cut through a cable. We had a map of all the services in the area but this cable was not marked. On inspection, it wasn't gas or electricity so we thought it must be a telephone cable. The G.P.O was contacted and there was a huge palaver, the main cable between Goonhilly Down and the Post Office Tower in London had been breached. We were threatened with a huge fine - so many pounds per lost transatlantic call.(hundreds of thousands of pounds). lt took much persuading for the powers that be to accept that we were a charity with no money, and it was pointed out that the position of the cable should have been drawn on the map. They said that this was not done for security reasons as they did not want everyone to know it was there.

Although, obviously, Restormel Council had given planning permission for the building of the centre to go ahead, it was not at all supportive of the project. lt was seen as a potential rival to Polkyth leisure centre. Each time a planning inspection took place it was the chief planning officer who came to the site. One time, when the head man was not available, a new assistant came to do an inspection, he asked why this site was different from all other building sites. He explained that the usual rules were to pass the work unless it was really bad but our site had the instructions to pass nothing unless it was perfect.

A trench was being dug across the Cattle Market car park to join the main sewer in North Street when the chief planning officer visited the site for an inspection. He asked what we were doing and was told we were digging the trench for the sewer pipes. He said that we did not have permission to dig up the car park and if it had anything to do with him we would not get permission. I said that was ridiculous, Restormel could not possibly give planning permission for a community centre and then prevent connection to the sewer. He said that they could and probably would. I said that would be insane. "Are you calling me inane" he shouted. I said "No, but the decision to withhold permission would be insane and the press will love the scenario of a tiny town being bullied by the district council." "You can't threaten me with the Cornish Guardian, I know all of them there" he replied. I smiled and said "Ah but my father-in-law is news editor on the Daily Express" He turned away, got in his car and left. We never saw him again. The trench was dug and the sewer was connected, permission was never queried.

The chief planning officer 'Took early retirement' soon after that, there had been problems regarding a large development in the Restormel area. The architect visited the site occasionally and was very disappointed with sorne of the cost-cutting measures which were taken. For example the large roof window should have been one huge piece of glass available only from Pilkingtons, It would have cost £3,800 plus delivery, so it was decided that several small pains of glass would be perfectly adequate but the poor man was not happy. Also, the internal door handles which were specified were rainbow colours and cost £47.00 each handle. They were beautiful but were deemed unnecessary. He said he was brokenhearted that these were not installed.

The squash court was a great problem as, in the past, the area had been the site of a pond so there was no solid ground for a great depth. A huge hole had to be dug and then filled up with rubble and solid material. Fortunately a local block maker had had a misfiring in his kiln and offered us all the sub standard blocks. When the concrete was being poured one of the men dropped his glove into the hole, then another dropped his glove then a hat and then an old coat was dropped together with some old boots. If the squash court is ever demolished someone will have a great shock as it looked just like a body was face down in the concrete.

As the building progressed so the economy improved and it was more difficult to find workers who had been unemployed for six months and some of those on site found permanent jobs. The team from the M.S. C. in Exeter were always extremely helpful and bent the rules many times to assist us. Ours was the largest project the scheme in Exeter had ever sponsored and they covered an area from Bristol to Penzance. The M.S.C. was discontinued in 1988.

At the end of the project the manager shook me by the hand and said "Good luck. The first 10 years will be the easiest. After that, new people in the town won't appreciate it as much as you people who enabled it to be built."

Most of the plumbing was carried out by the local plumber. All at no cost for his time.

The plastering of the squash court was amazing. It was done by a father and son company from Bristol. They carne and stayed in their caravan and applied minute layers of plaster leaving exact times between applying the layers so for about three days they worked day and night sleeping when the layers were drying.

The Granwood floor was another example of great workmanship. The speed and skill of the men was amazing, all done on their knees and with terribly toxic smelling glue. In about 1990, when I was the Town Clerk, Plymouth City Council rang and asked me if I knew anything about the Lostwithiel Community Centre. They wanted to know how the Granwood floor was wearing and if it was worth the extra cost rather than just having concrete. They were assured that it was worth every penny. The floor is still there today in Plymouth Pavillions.

On the opening day there was a roller skating session for kids. A little girl aged about 10 came up to me, gave me a big hug and said "That's Ace. That's the Acest thing that ever happened in Lostwithiel"

Maybe it was!