Saturday, December 01, 2012

Why Highbury Trust should not become a fully independent trust?

Why Highbury Trust should not become a fully independent trust?

Followers of the local news will know that there is an ongoing debate over the future of Highbury Hall and its associated lands. Following pressure from a local group, the Council is considering cutting it ties with Highbury Hall and ground and allowing it to go fully independent. I think this would be a mistake and in this blog I argue that it should instead become semi-independent, with the Council still remaining the final Trustees. 

Background on the History of Highbury Trust

Highbury Hall and its grounds, form the northern section of Highbury Park. The large pond in the middle of Highbury Park is the southern edge of this estate. You can see the boundaries of the estate and what buildings are on it by looking at a powerpoint presentation I did at

Highbury Hall and Gardens were created in 1878 and was the home of Joseph Chamberlain MP, who was one of Britain’s most influential politicians in the late Victorian period. His two sons Austin and Neville, spent their childhood there. Austin would go to win the Nobel Peace Prize and Neville become Prime Minister. 

The family vacated Highbury Hall – emptying it of all furniture – in 1914. It was then handed over to the Council, as a charitable trust in 1932. The only demand on the running of the trust was that it should be “used for the benefit of the citizens of Birmingham”
To fit this aim, Highbury Hall was used as an elderly people home until 1985. In 1985, a large amount of restoration work was done on the ground floor, so that it could be used instead for conferences and weddings. The furniture in the building is not from the pre-1914 Highbury Hall, but is instead antique furniture of late Victorian style. One room on the ground floor, was set aside by the Chamberlain family, to be used as a museum room – the Chamberlain Library room. Unfortunately, due to repeated break-ins, most of the books and furniture are now kept in storage away from Highbury Hall. 

Also on the ground floor of Highbury Hall are the Council’s Civic Catering kitchens. Any food served by the Council – including the food sold in the Edwardian Tea Rooms in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery – is prepared at Highbury Hall.
Next to Highbury Hall, Chamberlain House was built in 1940. It was built on the foot print of the glass house that Joseph Chamberlain grew his orchids. Chamberlain House was built as and used as a military hospital. At some point after 1945, it was then used as offices. 

The gardens of Highbury Hall were ornate, containing an Italian Garden, Dutch Garden, Elizabethan Garden, Rockery, Sundail platform, Viewing Platform. These were very much intact up until the 1980s, when they were allowed to fall into disrepair and become overgrown.

Highbury Trust and the Charity Commission 

Since the late 1990s, the Charity Commission has been complaining to Birmingham City Council that they are not happy with the way Highbury Trust has being managed. From the Charity Commission’s viewpoint, they felt that the Highbury Trust was being used simply as Council buildings – for use as Council offices or functions – and not enough charitable use. This is not to say that commercial activities could not happen within the trust, BUT the money generated by that commercial activity had to remain with the Highbury Trust accounts and be spent on charitable uses. So for example, Civic Catering should really pay rent for using part of the ground floor of Highbury Hall and this money should be retained within the trust. 

This is where we come to the well repeated argument that the Council owes Highbury Trust millions of pounds for past rent in using both Highbury Hall and Chamberlain House as Council offices. The counter-argument to this is that Highbury Trust owes the Council millions of pounds for the 1985 restoration work on Highbury Hall and the annual maintenance of its grounds in Highbury Park. To overcome this argument, the Charity Commission have agreed to cancel any past debts owed between the Council and the Highbury Trust. We are now starting from no one owing anyone anything.

Highbury Trust and the Highbury Coalition 

The Highbury Coalition is a group of local residents who want to take over the entire running of Highbury Trust. The Council would become either a minority stakeholder in the trust or be none existent. The argument put forward by the Highbury Coalition is that the Council have run the Highbury Trust very poorly in the past and therefore they would do a better job. This is the basis of the argument of the Highbury Trust becoming fully independent and which the Council is now proposing.

Why I don’t want Highbury Trust to become fully independent

I will now put forward my argument for why Highbury Trust should NOT become fully independent. I don’t have a problem with it becoming semi-independent, where the Council set the parameters for the day-to-day management of the trust, or a specific project role, which is done by another Trust......but I want the Council to remain the overall guardian of the trust.

An independent Trust would not be as democratic as the Council maintaining it 

If Highbury Trust becomes fully independent, as is being proposed by the Council’s Charities and Trust Committee and supported by the Highbury Coalition, the Council will lose all say over the future direction of Highbury Hall and its estate. At the moment, the residents indirectly have a say in the running of Highbury Hall and its grounds through the local elections and local Councillors.

An independent Trust could sell off parts of the Highbury Trust 

Once Highbury Trust becomes fully independent, the residents of Birmingham will lose any say in whether or not parts of the estate are sold off. Remember that in 2004, the Council wanted to sell off Chamberlain House, the three lodges and the land that Four Seasons horticultural project occupy. The Charity Commission fully supported this proposal, since the receipts from the sale would go towards the repair of Highbury Hall. It was only after an outcry by local residents, which was supported by local Councillors, that the Council dropped these plans – that’s democracy in action. In complete contrast the Highbury Coalition have repeated tried to stop the Council explaining it plans for Highbury Trust. When I was the local Councillor I would be repeatedly asked to by a local residents group to attend a public meeting to explain what was happening with the Highbury Trust; days before the meeting, I would then be informed by the organisers that someone from the Highbury Coalition had contacted them requesting that I should not be allowed to speak, unless the Highbury Coalition were there to put an alternative argument to anything I said. This reached its nadir, earlier this year at the AGM of the Friends of Highbury Park, (a member of the Highbury Coalition), when the Chair banned me from even speaking at their meeting about the investment the Council were putting into Highbury Park and the Trust lands. 

I don’t want the future of Highbury Hall and estate to be put into the hands of individuals who try to stop local residents, and their democratically elected representatives, from openly disagreeing with them.

An independent Trust could close off parts of Highbury Park 

All the area around the main pond in Highbury Park is Highbury Trust land. If Highbury Trust becomes fully independent, you will lose any say as to whether or not parts of the Trust are fenced off. The paths would have to be maintained as established rights of way, but anything other than that could be fenced off. This could happen if the Trust struggled financially and could not maintain the grass areas. An insurance company would refuse to provide public liability cover, which in turn would force the independent Trust to fence off large sections of open space.

An independent Trust would not guarantee protection of the Heritage of the Highbury Trust

The objectives of the Highbury Trust is that it has to “used for the benefit of the citizens of Birmingham”. Protection of its heritage is not an objective of the Highbury Trust, this is why Highbury Hall was used as an elderly peoples home until 1985. The reason so much of it has been preserved, is due to the public putting pressure on the Council to do so. Once Highbury Trust becomes fully independent there is nothing to stop the buildings falling into disrepair and one by one being demolished. If you don’t believe me, then look at what happened to another historic building in Moseley that was maintained by an independent trust – Centre 13 on School Road. Centre 13 occupied one of the oldest buildings in Moseley: the original St Marys Church of England School building. It was built in 1828 when all around it was just fields. It was one of the first free schools in Birmingham built specifically to educate the poor. 

In 2005, the charitable trust that ran Centre 13 announced that they were going to demolish the historic building, since they found it increasingly expanse to run. I led a public outcry against this proposed demolition. The Trust ignored this outcry and flattened the site. This could happen again, if Highbury Trust becomes fully independent.


An independent Trust would not guarantee that the Highbury Trust would be financially sustainable 

Charitable Trusts can be successful, but equally they can be utter failures. For every successful trust in Birmingham, I can point to trusts that have collapsed due to incompetence, corruption or lack of direction. It is very easy for Directors of Trusts to fall out and bullying personalities or groups to take over – as Cabinet member for Leisure, Sport and Culture I was called into to help at several trusts were the Directors were fighting amongst themselves. The same could happen at Highbury Trust and the danger is that in any collapse, parts of the estate would be sold off, demolished or left empty and burnt down by vandals. Highbury Trust is too important from a heritage viewpoint to allow this to happen. 

Why it is safer for Highbury Trust to become a semi-independent Trust

I would be far happier for Highbury Trust to become semi-independent of the Council, similar to the Museums Trust. The Council would remain the final Trustee of Highbury Trust, but would employ another Trust to look after the restoration and day-to-day management of the estate. The Council would set an overall strategy for the trust – ie it must restore the heritage of the estate, nothing sold off, charity use and financially sustainable. There would need to be break clauses, so that if the trust employed failed to reach set milestones, then the Council would take over control of the Trust again. I would also like the Council to go to the market place and see what other Trusts would be interested in running the estate. There are lots of Conservation Trusts across Britain that are experienced in restoring and running historic estates like Highbury Hall Gardens – Birmingham Conservation Trust? The National Trust? It would be wrong to simply hand over Highbury Trust to the Highbury Coalition, without seeing what other Trusts are out there.


At 10:08 AM, Blogger Marcus Belben said...

Thansk Martin. I don't know enough about the 'Highbury Coalition' to form any opinion, but agree on the importance of 'the people of Birmingham' means elected councillors/BCC answerable and having influence in what happens.


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