RNLI raids its reserves for college

The RNLI is spending £30m on new buildings, two years after it was accused of hoarding reserves.

The charity, which employs more than 1,000 staff, began its spending spree by opening a £25m lifeboat college last month. Opened by the Queen, it is the world’s first such facility. The property includes a 60-bed residential unit and a survival centre with a 25m-wave tank that allows recruits to practice capsize drills.

Spiralling training costs and a shortage of maritime recruits prompted the organisation to invest in the college.

“Today, only around 10 per cent of our lifeboat crew volunteers have a maritime background,” said RNLI head of training Sue Hennessy. “Years ago, it would have been more like 90 per cent.”

The charity says changing health and safety requirements, new technology and EU legislation had caused training bills to rocket by 72 per cent in 2003.

The institution also spent £1.3m last year on hotel bills for volunteers training at previous locations, usually on the Isle of Wight. The college is next to the charity’s headquarters in Poole, Dorset, where a third RNLI building is also in the pipeline.

Planners have approved an application to build a £5.2m visitor centre, featuring a 1,600m2 exhibition area, café and shop. The centre will employ 20 staff.

“We have a wonderful story to tell and the visitor centre will tell it,” said Hennessy. Ethical Audit, a group of accountants that inspect organisations’ finances, criticised the RNLI in 2002 for holding £200m in free reserves. Hennessy denied the RNLI had changed its reserves policy and said that criticism of it “wasn’t well founded”.

“Our reserves policy is agreed with the Charity Commission, which understands that a very capital-intensive charity such as ours needs to have the reserves to constantly deliver,” she said.

Hennessy added that the college had been funded by a few large legacies and that the families of the donors had approved the idea.

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