The Charity Commission is to look into Conservative-run Croydon Council’s plans to take over the running of the Fairfield Halls and London Mozart Players.
The Commission’s decision follows reports on Inside Croydon.
Papers for the decision-making cabinet last month suggested that the council would not need the Commission’s approval for the 75 per cent takeover of the two charitable trusts.
However, correspondence from the Charity Commission seen by Inside Croydon suggests that this is not the case and that the council’s assumptions could be flawed.
A month ago, we reported how Dudley Mead, the deputy leader of the Croydon Conservative group at the Town Hall, wanted the council to take charge of the running of the financially struggling arts venue which, like the London Mozart Players, enjoys charitable status which provides some important tax breaks.
It was suggested that the main reasons for the effective “re-nationalisation” of the arts venue – contradicting current Tory-led government policy – was to relieve Fairfield of the hefty pension liabilities with which it is saddled, and to protect the interests of property developers’ multi-million pound schemes for building “luxury apartments” in its “Fair Field Masterplan”.
In recent times, Croydon Council has provided more than £1 million per year out of our Council Tax to subsidise the Fairfield Halls’ running costs, and is planning to spend £27 million on a refurbishment of the venue – though what other public assets they intend to flog off to pay for this have yet to be revealed.
Inside Croydon later went into some detail to lay out all of the the business interests, positions and boards in which the Terry and June of Croydon Town Hall, Mead and his wife, fellow councillor Margaret Mead, hold – many of which had not been properly declared in the council’s register of interests.
Our loyal reader brought the nexus of apparent conflicting interests to the Charity Commission’s attention. “I know the Commission has had concerns about the way councils run charities,” the local resident wrote, questioning whether Croydon’s assertion that the Commission need not be consulted was correct.
At first, the Charity Commission said that it assumed that Croydon Council would be taking over as sole trustee of the two charities. “If this is correct,” they said, “we can confirm that we would have no objection.”
But when it was pointed out that, rather than taking over as sole trustee, the council would be appointing the majority of trustees, the Charity Commission changed its position.
In an email sent last week, they wrote: “The Charity Commission’s role as regulator is to enable charities to deliver effective services whilst also ensuring compliance with charity law.
“We are reconsidering the information you have provided to determine whether there is any regulatory interest for the Commission.”
Norbury resident Sean Creighton, who has extensive experience dealing with charitable trusts and local authorities in London over the past 30 years, welcomed the Charity Commission’s decision to look into the matter.
“For trustees of charities, their legal responsibility is to the charity, not to any other organisations they are also involved with,” he said. “Therefore trustees who are councillors of local authorities which fund a charity are in a difficult position in the event of the interests of the charity not being in accord with the demands of the local authority.”
At last week’s annual council meeting at the Town Hall, Croydon Council appointed five councillors to the board of the Fairfield Halls (three Conservatives and two Labour: David Fitze, Lynne Hale and Dudley Mead; plus Timothy Godfrey and George Ayres) and three to the board of the London Mozart Players (Fitze, Mead and Godfrey).
Creighton believes that the appointments will put the councillors in impossible positions if the council’s takeover of the Fairfield Halls goes ahead. “They should abstain from voting and ought to refrain from taking part in debate,” Creighton said, in effect suggesting that such appointments are a complete waste of time. Or an absolute conflict of interests.
“The least that could come out of the Commission’s re-consideration is to spell this out to both the boards of trustees and to the council. At best the Commission may decide that it will have to make a decision on whether to approve or refuse the increase in the number of councillors as trustees. However, the Commission is fallible like all other organisations, so it may decide to let Croydon do what it wants.”
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- Inside Croydon: For comment and analysis about Croydon, from inside Croydon
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In our review of Fairfield Halls with many parties from across the Borough there was a huge desire for it to maintain independence from the Council. By the end of our discussions we had concluded that Croydon needs a strategic charity to coordinate Arts and Arts funding which is wholly separate from the Council and that the London Mozart Players and the Fairfield Halls ought to be wholly independent charities too, see full report on: http://southcroydoncommunityassociation.files.wordpress.com/2013/02/arts-report-croydon.pdf .
The huge advantage to the taxpayers of Croydon being that the Council funds if given at arms length to the various Croydon charities can become eligible for matched funding from other charities; so the Croydon residents can see their funds effectively doubled. We had a very useful study of Leicester which has a far better Arts offer and a similar demographic to Croydon. Croydon picks up very little funding from outside the Borough for its Arts.