Highbury Trust Consultation Notice

Everyone who wrote to the Charity Commission last Spring should be getting a letter like this:

I write further to our letter sent in March to provide you with an update on this case.

The Commission met with Birmingham City Council in April. We agreed that it was necessary for the Council as trustee to consult with interested parties about proposals for the future of the charity. This includes possible charitable activities that could be undertaken and means of generating income to fund these activities. It was agreed that a meeting would be held for this purpose.

Although the Council did not meet the original deadline to hold the meeting before the end of September, a meeting has now been arranged for 28 October. This meeting is an opportunity for the Council to discuss options for the future of Highbury with interested parties and take on board their ideas and suggestions. This will form the basis for further discussions between the Council and the Commission about the way forward for the charity, including the contents of an amended Scheme.

Any amendments to the draft Scheme would be subject to a further period of public notice, providing the opportunity for representations to be made. These representations would be considered alongside those already made (where these remain relevant to the amended Scheme).

If you are interested in attending the meeting on 28 October, you should contact the Council directly to obtain further information. Given the high number of representations received when the original draft Scheme was published, we recognise that the Council may need to limit numbers at the meeting for practical reasons and to make decisions about who can attend based on this. It is a matter for the Council as trustee to decide on the best way of ensuring that the greatest possible range and number of interested parties can be consulted. This may include other forms of consultation outside the meeting if necessary.

Due to the number of interested parties in this case it will not be possible for us to provide regular updates but we will notify you again when an amended draft Scheme is published.

Yours sincerely
Wayne Douglas (Mr)
Pp Kate Waring (Miss)

The letter helps frame some of the questions and topics we’d expect to given consideration. For instance, the consultation is meant to be “about proposals for the future of the charity”, which is a broader topic than the future of the buildings or any one part of the land. The future of the charity should include the setting out of clear management priorities. We will use this as an opportunity to ask about protecting the vandalised former gardens, both inside the park and in the area of neglected land currently held by Social Services. Similarly, the future of the charity should include a clear setting out of charitable activities, such as giving the Four Seasons project a secure tenure, bringing the Bailiff’s Cottage back into use, and encouraging charitable activities in the surrounding landscape, such as restoring parts of the long-neglected gardens, paths, orchard and open spaces.

Developing the ‘means of generating income to fund these activities’ is also important, as it means ensuring that the Council pay a proper rent for the buildings and grounds, while making sure that there are options for developing income through a wide range of activities. You may recall that the Council have paid no rent on the property for decades, while also claiming to have put millions into a partial restoration of the Hall. (As an aside, in the absence of accounts to verify it, neither the Trust nor the public can have assurance that the work is value for money, nor that the work was prioritised properly.)

Generating income from the Hall ought to be open to a wider range of activities, through tours, events, and rental of office space. The Council seem content to let it as a weddings and conference venue while leaving much of it disused.

The planned evacuation of Chamberlain House (by March 2010) means that this building will be available for use in new ways. One possibility is to hire it out as commercial space with the rent going to the Trust. Another is to continue its use as a social service facility, which might mean hiring it to a national charity for that purpouse. It might also be given over to charitable use on an interim basis. (Could it function as a local cultural facility or extension to an educational scheme?)

The Four Seasons project has proven ability to generate income, partly through plant sales on site, and partly through the production of street planters as seen in Hall Green. Were the project given security of tenure, they could focus on developing their business side, and perhaps contribute more to the overall income and upkeep of the site. So the consultation ought to include a clear consideration of how Four Seasons will be supported in a way that helps it go from strength to strength.

Each of these points should make their way into an amended Scheme for the Trust. But there’s one issue that has not been put on the table: the composition of the Trust itself. Our concerns about the Trust management may have started with the long-term neglect of Highbury assets, but quickly focussed on the lack of proper backbone on the part of Trustees. The Trustees have been dependent on the Council in an unhealthy way, and seem to have fallen down on the job in terms of maintaining standards set by the Charity Commission. While the Trustees may turn over a new leaf and show the proper independence by following Commission policy rather than Council whims, some special measures are in order, at least until things are on a proper footing. To this end, we would like to see the number of Trustees expanded, to include representatives of established charities, the Chamberlain family, heritage and local community groups. That means keeping Council members on, probably as a majority, but also making sure there is both oversight and an expanded scope on the way Highbury is managed and on its range of charitable activities. The trustees have let us down over the decades, so we must insist on a new structure that better maintains the wonderful character of Highbury.

Two further points: no contact details have been given in relation to attending the meeting, and it’s noted that the Council may limit numbers or invitations to attend. We will look into the specifics of who to contact, but in the meantime, it’s likely to include Cllr. John Alden as Chair of the Trusts & Charities subcommittee, and the corporate policy and performance team as set out on the Council’s overdue consultation portal:

Consultation Support Office
Corporate Policy and Performance Team
Birmingham City Council
The Council House
B1 1BB

Telephone: 0121 675 4476
Email: consultation@birmingham.gov.uk

The idea that Council might try to choose who attends is hint that we ought to request more than one meeting, in more than one location. It’s worth asking the consultation team about their standard practice, and to be informed at the earliest opportunity about arrangements for Highbury’s consultation. For a high-profile place like Highbury, other forms of consultation ought to be included as a matter of course.

The community groups who’ve come together around the Highbury issue will be planning ahead, issuing positions and guidance, and getting the word out. If you want to be part of the effort, please contact us via Highbury Park Friends or Moseley CDT. We hope to hear from you on or before the 28th.

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