St John Ambulance to close more than 100 buildings with immediate effect

The first aid charity must reduce its estate to protect its future, chief executive Martin Houghton-Brown said

(Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/AFP via Getty Images)
(Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/AFP via Getty Images)

St John Ambulance has announced plans to close 117 of its 352 buildings with immediate effect, as the charity grapples with a financial deficit of £20m caused by the coronavirus pandemic. 

The measure, announced on Wednesday, comes alongside additional measures including furloughing almost half of the charity’s employed workforce, stopping pay increases, pausing projects, implementing a recruitment freeze where possible and looking at the longer term plan for recovering the lost income. 

A further review of the properties would be carried out in the autumn, the charity said in a statement, with the organisation aiming to retain and improve buildings from which it can deliver the “most positive impact in communities”. 

Announcing the measure, chief executive, Martin Houghton-Brown said the charity “had not taken this decision lightly.” 

He said: “We know our buildings represent more than just a physical presence in communities.

“However, we have a duty to continue serving these communities by responding to their health needs and it is with regret that we have to reduce our estate to shore up the charity’s future.” 

Speaking at a virtual meeting of the Digital, Culture, Media & Sport Select Committee in April this year, Houghton-Brown had previously warned the charity had reserves “to last until August”, but that “if the [pandemic] was to go beyond August it would require heavy borrowing.”

In a statement to Third Sector, a spokesperson for the charity said that despite receiving a parcel of the government’s £750m sector bailout, the organisation “could not underestimate the impact that Covid-19 has had on St John’s main income streams – first aid training and event cover – being halted by the nationwide lockdown.” 

“Despite receiving an injection of government cash, we have always been clear that we need to continue to make difficult decisions to help us deal with the financial deficit of £20m. This significant challenge has led to the decision we announced this week,” the spokesperson added. 

In May the charity announced a programme of redundancies, with up to 250 roles placed at risk. The charity spokesperson confirmed the consultation was still in process, and that the organisation was working to minimise the impact on its staff. 

“We have worked really hard through our employee forums to minimise the impact, including implementing different ways of working, redeploying staff, introducing four-day weeks (to extend into 2021) and job sharing,” they said. 

“Nearly 150 people have proceeded with the voluntary redundancy programme and around 40 roles will be compulsory redundancies, although final figures will not be known until we conclude the full consultation process." 

The charity confirmed it was planning risk assessments for multiple scenarios in the months ahead, including technological solutions to help grow volunteer numbers and expand its units. 

Houghton-Brown said he would work with St John colleagues to explore “how we evolve to still meet and serve communities.” 

“Whether that’s using technology to better connect with people or finding partners in the community who would welcome St John, we will find new ways to continue our life saving work now, and for many years to come,” he said. 

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