Tonight’s Ward Committee Meeting was surprising in a couple of ways. Firstly in that it was sparsely attended. Maybe 12 people in the audience, 6 people at the table, including Cllr. John Alden and Rajesh Parmar of the Charities and Trusts Subcommittee. Secondly in that Cllr Alden said – in paraphase – that he was less concerned about the reformation of Highbury Trust and more concerned about getting £2.5 million in back rent from the council for the 22 years they’ve been using Highbury Hall, Chamberlain House and grounds. He said at one point, though I cannot quote exactly, that he refuses to adopt the proposed changes to the Trust until he sees the money.
This is excellent news for us, because the proposed changes take some things away without giving anything back. They take away the prohibition on sale of land and assets, and give no assurance of accountability or openness. So things are better unchanged, and if Cllr. Alden stands by his word we are happy to support him. More importantly, his refusal to adopt the changes means we have time to negotiate a better draft, and we will be writing to the Charity Commission with this in mind. (You are also welcome to write.)
What we want to see is as follows:
that the Trust is separated from the Council and trustee positions are offered to a wider range of community organisations;
that a proper accounting is done regarding past spending and income, with the intent of clarifying the legitimate operating costs and anticipating future costs;
that an arrangement to balance what has been spent with what should have been paid is agreed, even if it resolves to the council’s favour;
that no sale of land is agreed until it can be conclusively shown that no other means of deriving income are suitable;
that the integrity of the estate is of paramount importance and that, except for the dwellings, maintaining public rights of use is equally important.
Some of the other community reps in the room agreed to send their own versions to the Charity Commission, with the idea that this may help persuade them to revise the proposal.
Our position is broadly based on the idea that Highbury is best kept intact because it is a period piece and an eclectic one at that. Not many urban estates remain with their ‘country garden’ intact. Birmingham may count itself lucky in that it has more than one mansion with grounds intact and open to the public, but Highbury is also special because of its association with Joe Chamberlain (and Richard Cadbury next door) and because the park and the Hall have evolved into a distinctive mix of wild and cultivated, urban and rural landscapes.
Other points made during the discussion were that the Council has made things more difficult for itself by overlooking the possibilities for a reformed Trust that has its own trading arm. For example, if a charity like Age Concern were to take on Chamberlain House and lease it to Social Services, that would be entirely within the charity remit and would simplify the issues around income and maintenance. Former councillor Barry Henley made the point that a charitable community organisation could manage the entire estate, letting out various bits just as the Council have done. Cllr. Emily Cox wondered aloud why this sort of thing hasn’t happened already.
What this means is that the current Council proposal is a poorly-rendered solution that under-serves the Trust and the community. But if Cllr. Alden is willing to support us, we might be able to revise the proposal and come up with a much better solution. We hope to discuss this further with him in the near future.