Eyewitness: Birmingham City Council hears some home truths about sole trusteeship

Third Sector finance reporter David Ainsworth describes a meeting last week when angry residents attacked the council's stewardship of the Highbury Trust

Highbury Hall
Highbury Hall

More than 100 residents crowded into Birmingham City Council's chambers on Wednesday night to tell the council it had failed in its duty to a local charity. 

They charity in question is the Highbury Trust, which owns a 19th Century Victorian mansion and several acres of parkland in the heart of the city. Residents want the council to be removed as the corporate trustee.

Among the accusations were that the council had housed its social services department in a trust-owned building without paying rent for well over a decade; had failed to file accounts for several years; had run down the house and gardens until almost £4m was needed for renovation; and had carried out little charitable activity on the site since 1985.

What, asked the residents, did the council say to that?

Cllr John Alden, chair of the council's trusts and charities sub-committee, said the council was keen to let bygones be bygones, and that it was time to move on to the future.

He then conducted a lecture on the architecture of the council's chambers, to the complete bafflement of large swathes of the audience.

Alden then talked about how the charities and trusts sub-committee was wholly independent from the rest of the council, and would negotiate ruthlessly with it to get the best deal for the charity.

Cllr Martin Mullaney, the council's cabinet member for culture, then outlined a detailed plan for the park that involved the council (in its role as the council) renting out space from the council (in its role as the trustee). He warned the assembled residents that if he did not get his way, the council might withdraw any financial support and leave the trust staring at a financial black hole.

Barry Henley, a former councillor and long-time campaigner for change in the park, had doubts about whether the council could make this work, because the plan was subject to an inherent conflict of interest.

This appeared to be the nub of the problem for the residents. Could the council be trusted to negotiate effectively with itself?

What if the council asked the council for a lower rent? What if the council wanted to end its contract with the council? What if the council wanted to know financial details it would be in the council's best interests not to tell it?

What if the council needed to sue the council, or send the bailiffs round? Could a municipal body with debts rumoured to stretch into the billions really be trusted to wring every penny from itself?

These were the techniques used by Haringey Council in London with Alexandra Palace, claimed Alison Millward, a local resident and a best-practice consultant for the Heritage Lottery Fund.

They were techniques, she suggested, that had not turned out well.

Instead, she said, what had worked in other locations were independent committees - made up jointly of councillors, representatives from local charities and residents' groups - with a clear and separate identity. This, she said, was what the council should do.

This was an interesting model, said Cllr Alden, who stood up and thanked the people of Birmingham for coming. He told them he understood their desire for more inclusivity and consultation in the decision-making process.

The sub-committee, he announced, would now retire, think about what they had heard, then come back in three months and say what had been decided.


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