Joined: 29 Jun 2011
|Posted: Thu Jun 30, 2011 3:05 am Post subject: Hi from a new member - Can anyone offer some advice please?
I am a Director/Trustee of a local music and arts charity and our local Town/Parish Council have caused us enormous difficulties over the last year, bringing the work of our charity virtually to a halt.
Our main work is to organise and stage an annual one day festival which has grown in size and reputation over the last 30 years celebrating its 10th anniversary under its current branding last year. The event brings thousands of visitors to our tourist dependent market town (population 20,000), we also usually act as the grand finale to the Town's annual two week long summer festival.
In the process of trying to find out more about why we are in the position we now find ourselves in we have discovered that our Town Council is breaking numerous laws, & conducting their meetings incorrectly. At times their meetings have descended into a complete shambles due to poor chairing skills with the Clerk having to step in to try and restore some order by effectively assuming the Chair for part of the meeting..... So far though other than taking the Council to an expensive Judicial Review no-one seems to have been able to find anyway we can challenge some of the things that have been happening and hold the council to account for its actions. Town/Parish Councils are outside the jurisdiction of the Local Government Ombudsman, and the Code of Conduct only covers Councillors individually and not when acting as a body corporate. Our District and County Council are also appalled at the way we have been treated by the Town Council and yet they too are powerless to help, the County Council have even offered to mediate a meeting between the Town Council and ourselves but this too was refused.
Amazingly despite this catalogue of horrors our council has been granted Quality Council status - i fthis is what can be expected from a quality council I dread to imagine what is going on in councils that have not achieved this status.
Even the Town Council Chaplain told us as he left one meeting recently part way through the agenda that he is praying for us as we need all the help we can get to deal with the Council!
At the May elections 50% of the Councillors returned were new to the Council but even this significant change of membership so far does not appear to have helped our case.
Our current problems include :
1. The Council have a number of standing committees which do not have any delegated powers - all proposals/resolutions adopted by the committees have to be endorsed by the full council. This is done by the Full Council adopting the minutes of these committee meetings as a true record.
However, unless a councillor is on the ball and spots something in the draft minutes and raises it as a matter arising before the minutes are adopted the decisions are not individually highlighted.
Last night the newly elected councillors were told by their longer serving colleagues that they have to vote on the accuracy of the minutes of these committee meetings even if they did not attend the meeting, as the decisions taken are binding on the whole council! As you can imagine this caused some consternation to the new Councillors some of whom stuck to their guns and refused to vote in favour of the draft minutes being a true record of meetings they had not attended.
This problem is compounded by the fact that the agendas for meetings are not prepared correctly and do not reflect all the business the Council is due to transact. Any proposals from committees are only dealt with under the general heading of Matters Arising for each respective committee at Full Council. We have been told that Council agendas should not include an item for 'Matters Arising' as this does not give anyone Councillors or public the full details of the business the Council are due to transact.
None of the proposals actually appear on the Full Council agenda and as at last nights meeting many of the draft committee minutes were only circulated to Councillors 5 minutes prior to the start of the meeting, so it was impossible for them to read and grasp the details they contained before they were asked to vote.
How can we as members of the public challenge this? All our formal complaints about other matters to the Council have so far gone either unanswered or have been acknowledged but remain unaddressed, they have even refused all of our Freedom of Information Requests and having sought the advice of the Information Commissioners Office they are now currently working their way through 13 seperate formal complaint cases they have logged as a result of this. The ICO has been simply staggered at the reaction they have had from the Council so far despite offering them help, support and advice about how they should be responding to us.
2. The Council use the power to exclude the press and public from sections of their meetings frequently, but never give full reasons why they feel they need to go into closed session. The public minutes also do not record a summary of the issues discussed in these sessions or the decisions reached. Clearly it is not practical for them to discuss all issues in public i.e. confidential staffing issues which is understandable. But they even held one meeting specifically to discuss Freedom of Information. They declared the meeting open and then immediately moved to exclude the press and public! The public minutes of this meeting do not record anything that was discussed or the decisions taken! Unbelievable
3. At Full Council Meetings the Council hold a Public Forum session for 30 minutes at the start of the meeting to 'receive comments and views from members of the public'. Speakers are limited to 3 minutes each. Our Directors have attended these meetings on a monthly basis for the last 12 months so there is a public record of our repeated requests to the Council to meet with us and discuss outstanding issues. Last night we were told that we could only ask direct questions and not comment or express our views. We were also told that we cannot continue to ask questions about our festival at these Forums.
As Charity Trustees we have a duty to try and protect the good name of our Charity and it is essential that we can meet with the Council to try and resolve any concerns that they have about us, as their actions are proving hugely damaging to our charity and its beneficiaries.
Our represntations at these Public Forums comply with the time limit, and the Councils Standing Orders for the conduct of these sessions - can they therefore ban us and restrict our use of these sessions in this way?
4. Our Directors/Trustees have been asking for a meeting with the Town Council to discuss the future of our festival for over a year now and they have so far ignored all our requests. Our local MP chaired a public meeting specifically to discuss our festivals situation, because there has been significant media coverage of the matter. The public have been so outraged at our treatment which has led to the cancellation of our highly popular event. The MP too has been refused information about the Councils decisions relating to our charity.
5. Our event which is entirely run by volunteers and has been free to enter although we have recently started to actively encourage the audience to make a voluntary donation on entry. Despite this the event has operated at a small loss for the last two years largely as a result of its growth and the resulting higher costs of security/policing and infrastructure required. We have so far covered the loss from our now depleted tiny financial reserves.
As a result we had asked the Council if we could implement a small formal admission charge to help offset the costs in future and try and make the event more financially sustainable. This is particularly important as business sponsorship is becoming harder to obtain in the current economoic climate and our key long term sponsors have now unfortunately gone into administration. Without any discussion with us the Council decided that if we did implement a charge they would want 50% of any admission income. This despite having previously let us have the use of the site for free.
Last year we had a maximum on site attendance of 15,500 people with footfall across the day of 65,000 people, many people do not come for the whole day and night, while local people often pop in and out of the event at different times of the day for example they may bring their children in the afternoon then return home for a while before returning to the site later in the evening. This is why the footfall is so high.
If for the sake of round figures we were to charge £5 for Adults (for 11 hours of entertainment on three main stages) which would mean we would get to keep just £2.50 per person, based on last years attendance figures this would mean the council want £38,750 for the use of the public open space - they provide no other services to us. In fact we obtained a compartive quote from Hyde Park in central london which worked out £10,000 cheaper than our local council would charge and we would get some services from the park! The maximum our Council charge any commercial hirers of the site currently is £3,250. We therefore believe what they would want from us is both unfair and unreasonable.
In the unlikely event that we generated any surplus income as a result of any admission charge this would be ploughed back in full to improving the event the following year and if possible allow us to offer additional services to the local community during the year.
6. The Council claim our event has got too big for the Town - but too allay these fears we last year went through the very expensive process of obtaining an upgraded premises licence at aa cost of some £8,500 for the site which was granted in perpetuity. The licence covers us for up to 29,999 people to be on site almost double our current maximum on site crowd capacity. While the Health & Safety Executives Purple Guide to Event Safety would indicate the actual maximum capacity of the site is for 34,000 people. The revised licence had to be approved by all the statutory and emergency services and was granted after a full public consultation process. Despite this the Town Council still say we are too big but refuse to tell us which measure they are using to assess this.
Our independent Event Safety Advisory Group which is chaired by the local police and attended by representatives of all relevent statutory and emergency services as well as represntatives from local residents associations concluded after reviewing last years event that 'It was to be hoped that our festival would continue as it was viewed as a very positive date in the towns annual calandar' 5.
Our festival is usually held on the Town's main public open space managed by the Town Council. In March 2011 we submitted an application to run our not for profit charity festival in 2012. We were advised by the Council that they could not consider this application until after the May elections as it would be inappropriate to commit the incoming council to a booking for the site. We accepted that only to find out that in April a commercial organisation based in a town several counties away had submitted an application after ours and was given in principle approval to run an alternative commercial folk music festival on the July date we have occupied for the last 30 years. The rival organisers have no previous experience of running a festival.
If the Council couldn't make a decision on our application until after the elections how could they then consider and approve this rival application which was submitted after ours?
The Council and event organisers claim that the rival festival is to celebrate the Queens Diamond Jubilee which actually happens a month earlier in June.
We have made representations at the Public Forum of 2 Full Council meetings asking the council to reconsider or at the very least ask the alternative festival if they could stage the event during the Queens Diamond Jubilee Bank Holiday weekend thereby avoiding a clash with our event but these representations have been ignored.
Unfortunately there is no other suitable alternative site we could use within the Town.
7. The Council have now reviewed their Section 137 Grant Application process without undretaking any consultation with local groups.
They have decided that all applications must in future be accompanied by a set of verified audited accounts. Last year they tried to impose this requirement solely on our organisation and when we withdrew our grant application they then made it a condition of our using the site.
As you will appreciate a full audit is a very expensive process for a small charity and is legally unecessary. To give an example if our charity wanted to apply for a grant of £1,000 we would have to pay £2,500 incl VAT for a full audit which only the Town Council requires. (The Councils total budget for the year for the whole Section 137 budget is only £5,000 so any grants they do offer are usually £1K or less). We currently have our accounts scrutinised under the Independent Examination process approved for small charitable companies. The Ind. Exam is carried out by a fully qualified chartered accountant and the accounts we produce are fully accepted by the Charity Commission and Companies House but the Council state these are not acceptable. Meanwhile the Charity Commission have confirmed our trustees interpretation of the situation in that if we spent charity money on a legally unecessary audit this could be viewed as our trustees misusing charity funds or acting ultra vires and have stated that they consider the Town Councils requirements to be unreasonable. Despite explaining all of this to the Town Council they have gone ahead and adopted this new rule - we cannot see how any small group in the Town could now meet the criteria and apply. Even if we did spend the money on the audit there is obviously no guarantee that our application would even be successful. The Department for Communities and Local Government have told us
Local Government Act 1972: Section 137A
Section 137A of the LGA 1972 requires local authorities to impose accounting conditions on the provision of any financial assistance made to charitable bodies under section 137. This specifically requires that an organisation to which financial assistance has been provided supplies a written statement to the authority within 12 months of the assistance indicating the use to which it has been put. However, the condition only applies if the assistance is for £2000.00 or more and once assistance has been provided. It is not relevant to the provision of audited accounts in support of an application.
We of course are happy to be accountable for any public money we receive but believe that any requirement should be proprotionate to the size of grant.
Clearly again our Town Council are doing their own thing and ignoring all relevenat guidance but again there seems little or nothing we can do unless anyone on this forum has any ideas
8. Last but not least two weeks after the post event site inspection with the Council following last years festival they told us that the concerete base of a park bench had been damaged during the festival. This damage was not identified to us during the hand back inspection.
One month later they wrote to us setting out their claim, we wrote back denying the claim but asking that the council address any further correspondence on this matter to our insurers.
Incidentally we have not so far counter claimed against the Council for the costs of quite extensive remedial works we had to do the site to make it safe before we could start the event. Many of these dangers had been pointed out by us to the Council the year before and were even highlighted in the Councils Risk Assessment for the site!
Beyond three undated photos showing damage to the concrete base neither we nor our insurers have received any valid evidence of our liability for this damage which clearly could have occurred at any time before or after our event. The bench was not inspected prior to our accepting responsibility for the site as it was fuly occupied by members of the public during our pre event site inspection with the Council.
Without any evidence neither we nor our insurers can settle the £500 claim, and we have both repeatedly asked the council to provide us with any evidence they do have (they keep saying they have witnesses that one of our contractors caused the damage) which our contractor strenusously denies.
The Council claim that a vehicle ran over the bench which caused the concrete to crack. It is difficult to imagine how a vehicle could have done this while leaving the bench on top intact! An Army REME Engineer has told us that it would have been impossible for the concerete to be damaged in the way that the Council claim, and it is more likely to have been caused by water or frost damage.
The Council have been threatening us with legal action for three months now but in the meantime refuse to discuss any other issues with us until the claim is settled. We can understand that discussions relating to the claim must be conducted through insurers but fail to see any reason why we cannot discuss any other matters with them.
Quite honestly we would welcome them proceeding to issue a summons against us in the small claims court as without any valid evidence of our liability we cannot see how a Judge would decide in the Councils favour, and it would at least bring this long drawn out matter to a close.
9. Meanwhile we have received approaches from a number of neighbouring Councils and Counties who are aware of the difficulties we are facing and would love us to move the event to their area as they can see the enormous benefits we have for the Town. Our Audience profile surveys demonstrate that we are worth up to £1.7 million to the local economy, and we had over 7,000 hours of voluntary help went into organising and staging the event last year, plus thousand of pounds of help in kind donations of equipment and services. However, our volunteers for the most part live in the Town and want to run an event for their Town.
10. The Department of Communities and Local Government suggested that the only democratic option available to us would be to get 10 local electors to call for for a Parish Poll. But it is difficult to see what question we could pose which would only require a Yes or No answer to address all these complex issues.
The above is just the tip of the iceburg but if anyone can offer any advice on how we can move any of this forward I would love to hear from you.
Are Parish and Town Councils the most unaccountable tier of local authorities? I am told that these councils are accountable to their electorate - but how can the public be expected to get their head round all these complexities and hold the Council and Councillors to account if they refuse to answer any questions and are not open and transparent in the way they conduct their business.
How the Big Society could ever work against a backdrop like this is totally beyond my comprehension at present.
I do hope that some of you have some ideas we could try