Monday 26 November 2012

Highbury Trust Consultation

Tonight sees a consultation on for (another) Trust, and perhaps a critical meeting at Queensbridge School.  This time it's the Highbury Trust, a large space formally the Chamberlain estate between Kings Heath and Moseley.  Here's the concept plan, and more info.

I worry that signing over large parts of our assets to be managed for many years (in case of golf clubs, 25yr freehold) means we, through the City Council, have less say in what the organisations that take them over do with (technically still) our assets.  It leaves the door wide open for abuse, and reduction in access to what we own.

But that's not to say there are people out there who are willing to put time and energy to ensure our assets are put to good use - below an open letter from Laura Watts from Dens of Equality:

To whom it may concern,

I am writing on behalf of Dens of Equality, a community inclusion development agency which supports a range of projects for children and families across Birmingham. With regard to the current consultation we have a longstanding relationship with Uffculme School children through our play outreach projects run in the school and notably Parks for Play the local charity we support. Parks for Play delivers an array of play services in the constituency from large, free parks- based holiday playschemes, fruit and flower garden parks based projects, children's Saturdays clubs prioritising children with additional needs and Playwell, the first and only specialist after school play care in Birmingham run from Uffculme school. Playwell has benefited from productive partnership work bringing school and play practitioners together and enabling families with disabled children to start and stay in employment. 
The key point I would like to make is that children at Uffculme, like most children thrive on being educated in amply spacious surroundings. They have endured three years, particularly the new teenagers, of totally inappropriate prison style Portakabin accommodation whilst the building they were due to renovate on goodwill has been deteriorating at a pace savagely raising renovation costs. 
Children with autism are extremely likely to face extensive social isolation, an experience with massive consequences which we fail to recognise alongside the many indexes of deprivation. These children and young people do not need or deserve additional obstacles to impede their pursuit of well being .It should also be acknowledged that if Uffculme is sited at Chamberlain the Parks for Play charity is likely to commit to a programme of long term fundraising for neighbouring areas of the park, particularly in terms of access and to the benefit of the wider community. 
A measure of our community is how well we treat our more vulnerable citizens and in this instance those of us who have stood back or impeded the progress of this development have cause for individual and shared shame.


  1. I hope you don't mind, but I done a follow up to my first blog on this issue (first blog at )

    My follow up is at

  2. You do not seem to have got your facts mixed up.

    (1) Highbury Trust already owns the Chamberlain Estate and has done since 1932.

    (2) Chamberlain House is not and never has been owned by the City Council.

    (3) The City Council has robbed the trust for decades and used the buildings for its own use without paying rent to the Trust.

    (4) Chamberlain House was used by the Social Services department for decades without paying rent or doing any maintenance and only decided to get out when the repairs required a huge spend.

    (5) The Charity Commission has been complaining about the City Council since the 1980's for its abuse of Trust property and has ordered them to get their house in order.

    (6) While the use of Chamberlain House by the Uffculme Schools sounds a good thing and fits in with its charitable use the question is should this decision be made by the City Council during the death throws of the City Councils sole trusteeship.

    (7) I note you mention the handing over the city's golf courses to be run by a private business on a 25yr lease but you forget to mention and thank Martin Mullaney for organising that when he was the Cabinet member for Leisure, Sport and Culture for Birmingham City Council.

    1. Thanks for comments. I think I am guilty of not yet fully understanding Trust status, and am interested to find out how modern Trusts operate. Afterall, we now have Birmingham Museums Trust, the Health Trusts, and a whole range of other trusts.

      My main concern is to protect and utilise our assets as best as possible for everyone. As with Trusts, I am also concerned the rise in Academies in which Governors have more influence in decisions - how representative are they of the whole community? While school governors are philanthropic, if they have no responsibility beyond the school gate, who can blame schools for excluding the most expensive, difficult and vulnerable children to ensure the best chance for the majority of their children (and ensure the best results)? For schools, the role of the Local Education Authority (and through them BCC and National Government) is vital for the learning of all children and taking a more strategic role in educaiton. The demise of LEA influence means schools like Uffculme are more important now than ever.

      There is little question that Trustees and Governors have the best interests of schools and trusts in mind, but I am far more comfortable with responsibility to (ultimately) be in the hands of elected officials where possible, answerable to everyone, even if they don't always make the best decisions.

      As for the city's golf courses I am concerned, for similar reasons, about the freehold basis on which they are being run. I challenged Martin on this after a presentation he made to BOSF in 2011 - see below:

    2. Marcus, I do hope you will allow me to comment on the issue of the privatisation of the running of the 7 municipal golf courses in Birmingham. I will comment on what ‘Anonymous’ has said over the weekend.

      When I became Cabinet member for Leisure, Sport and culture in May 2009, our 7 golf courses were losing £650k per year. Going through the Council financial records it was clear that these 7 golf courses have never made a profit, or broke even. This was due to increased competition from privately run turn-up-and-play golf courses, their annual loss was going to increase every year. For example a privately run golf course in Bromsgrove was cheaper to use than Birmingham’s golf courses and provided far better facilities.

      By privatising the day-to-day running of Birminghma’s 7 golf courses, we have reduced the £650k annual loss to zero, plus the company intends to invest £16million of their own money into improving the courses. The courses will still be turn-up-and-play courses. The company cannot build on the courses, since the Council still owns the land. The company cannot use the land for non-golf activities. If the company goes bankrupt, the courses will return to the Council. The company are also tasked with increasing the playing of golf, especially within the inner city and BME groups.

      As someone who uses Cocks Moor golf course three times a week, I have seen investment in this course in the short time since the company took over its management in April.

      If we hadn’t privatised the day-to-day running of these golf courses, then you can bet your bottom dollar that Albert Bore would be closing all 7 golf courses down next April as he and the Labour Party dismantle the Council.

      As proof of this, I can point to the Labour Council in the mid-1990s who closing down all of Birmingham’s 5 pitch-and-putt courses (I use to play at the Stechford Park one) and all the crazy golf courses, including the one in Cannon Hill Park.

      By working with the private sector, we now have the crazy golf course re-opened in Cannon Hill Park. It re-opened in March 2012. It has cost the citizens of Birmingham nothing to do this and is a good example of public-private partnership.

      In summary, the golfers of Birmingham should be thanking me for saving their 7 golf courses, which otherwise would be closing down next year.

    3. Thanks Martin. I guess the measure of changes at the Highbury estate, golf courses, local Labour and national coalition policies will be in years to come. I do have problems understanding the virtues of privatisation, or why so many people doubt the abilities of our public sector.

    4. Thank you Marcus. I’ll try to explain the further the advantages about day-to-day management of facilities by public or the private sector. First of all can I say that I am not advocating the wholesale pushing of Council service operations into the private sector or charitable trust sector. I think each Council service should be judged individually to see which style of management gives the best level of service to the citizens of Birmingham for the money allocated. Some are best kept in-house, some moved into charitable trusts and some run by a private sector company. Indeed, in the case of Highbury Trust I am coming to the conclusion that keeping that in Council control is the best way forward, but I’ll explain that in another posting.

      The biggest disadvantage of keeping services in-house is that the huge bureaucracy of the Council stifles innovation and experimentation in the service. To illustrate this point, I was talking two weeks ago to one of the managers of our community museums to gauge how things were going under the new Museum Trust. Their view was that under the new trust, things from a local management viewpoint were alot better. For example, they wanted to purchase a new carpet in one part of the rooms in their museum. Under Council control this would have been a cumbersome task going through the Council system.....which would have taken weeks just to get the go-ahead. Under the trust, the manager rang their line manager for the go ahead and ordered the carpet from the local carpet shop the same day. The same goes for hiring staff for the summer season, involving a huge task taking months to do under the Council, now simple to do under the trust.

      This bureaucracy spreads into all manner of day-to-day operations, such that in the end managers in Council run facilities, simple give up on being innovative.

      This lack of innovation in Council run facilities becomes apparent over a number of years compared to privately run facilities. This illustrated using a comparison of Birmingham’s municipal golf courses versus a privately run golf course

      I mentioned previously how a privately run turn-up-and-play golf course in Bromsgrove was cheaper to use and provided better facilities than Birmingham’s municipal courses. This comparison shows the long term impact that the lack of innovation can have on Council run facilities. Birmingham’s 7 golf services are still run as if it’s the 1960s. They provide good quality golf courses with basic cafe facility. Compare that to the Bromsgrove golf course, which has moved with the times. Yes, there is still the good quality golf course, BUT the golf house is excellent, meeting the demands of the modern golfer. On the ground floor is a bar/restaurant – similar in decor to a Weatherspoons pub; they have modern changing facilities with showers; there is a club room for the resident golf club members. Upstairs there are conference and banqueting facilities. The Bromsgrove golf club does a great trade in weddings and conferences. Also on site is a golf range. As a result of these excellent all year round, whatever the weather facilities, the golf club makes a profit.

      In comparison the Birmingham golf courses are year-on-year losing their clientele to privately run golf courses like the one in Bromsgrove.......and they are costing the Birmingham taxpayer £650k per year to run.

      Before finishing this contribution, can I point out that charitable trusts don’t pay business rates. In the case of our museums this amounted to £350k per going straight to the government. By moving our Museums into a charitable trust, we have saved £350k in their annual running costs.

    5. Why just accept 'stifling bureaucracy' in BCC? why assume BCC can't adapt to deal with a range of different service provision? Shouldn't the response be that we deal with the problem, rather than symptom? (symptom - that the Golf courses were loosing money). Sounds like baby and bathwater. There are very good examples of public, voluntary and private sector organisations providing a range of services - I think in your latest blog you use the example of Centre 13. If you accept that all these orgs can work the only question is if strategic thinking and broader city aims are involved (e.g. cheap access to range of sporting facilities), in which case I think BCC should always have a decisive role.

    6. You make a valid point about why don’t we sort Birmingham City Council’s ‘stifling bureaucracy’. Indeed, the question arises of: why couldn’t Birmingham City Council have kept the day-to-day management of our golf courses in house?

      When I was Cabinet member this ‘stifling bureaucracy’ is something I explored – talking to senior management at Birmingham City Council, plus researching on why lots of Councils up-and-down the country have moved their services into trusts.

      The ‘stifling bureaucracy’ is not just a Birmingham issue, but a nationwide problem. Any Council, spending public money, will have to contend with a number of factors that the private sector or charitable trusts don’t have to contend with, thus:

      1) Any decision the Council makes is subject to judicial review
      All Council’s get their decisions challenged almost weekly by disgruntled organisations. The Council will make a decision, using processes it has used for years, and then a disgruntled organisation will discover some tiny process it doesn’t use and put in a judicial review. The impact of all this, is that Council’s have to apply the most complex processes to make simple decisions, just in case they subsequently get a legal challenge.

      2) Any decision the Council is subject to political, local media and public scrutiny
      Anything the Council does is subject to public scrutiny and even the slightest mistake can get blown out of proportion. Private sector and Charitable Trust are not subject to this level of scrutiny. To provide an example: when it was discovered that a stainless steel lintel (3 feet wide) in Moseley Road baths had been fabricated in Switzerland, all hell broke loose. There were very valid reasons, why the lintel hadn’t been fabricated in Britain – it was a British company that had sent it to Switzerland for fabrication. As the Cabinet member at the time, I had anticipated this media backlash and had already made enquiries as to why we were using Switzerland. The point in showing this example, is that no private company would ever be dragged through the media because a lintel, that no one will see, is not made in Britain. As result even the most minor of decisions in a Council is heavily scrutinised prior to being made, just in case a politician or local media pick up on it.

      3) The influence of Councillors
      In an ideal world, all Councillors would see their role as the following:
      • to set policy for the Council and to ensure it is implemented
      • listen to the views of officers and residents and after weighing up the evidence, make a decision
      • feed back the views/complaints of residents to the Council and act on them
      • act as a community leader and even sometimes be an a advocate for a resident who needs support in meetings
      • work with Council officers to enable a policy decisions to happen

      I am sure many of us can add to that list. Unfortunately, whilst the above list is the ‘positive’ side of Councillors, there is a ‘negative’ side of Councillors, which is as follows:
      • Unable to make a decision, for fear it will upset someone.
      • Unable to make a decision, because they don’t understand the issues and are not prepared to do their own investigation or research.
      • act as a line manager/union representative interfering into the day to day operation of a department and blocking or delaying the decisions of the departmental head
      • seeing Council officers as ‘the enemy’ and happy to humiliate them in public meetings (and can I emphasis this goes right across the political spectrum)
      • making unrealistic promises to the public and then expecting officers to deliver them within their current financial budget........which in turn leads to Councillor-Officer rows.

      It is this ‘negative’ side of Councillors that the public does not see, but can have a huge impact on de-motivating an entire department. It is also this ‘negative’ side of Councillors that private companies and charitable do not have to deal with.

    7. Finally, can I come to the point of why Birmingham City Council didn’t keep the day-to-day management of our golf courses in-house. We could have kept the golf courses and accepted the £650k loss every year. However, with the current squeeze on public finances, the Council would have found it difficult to justify this annual loss, when there are privately run golf courses within a 20 minute drive, offering a cheaper and far better service....and at zero public cost.

      To turn Birmingham’s municipal courses into zero cost or profitable courses, we estimated that they would require an investment of £10million minimum in brand new club houses. Even after doing that, we could not guarantee they would be profitable. However, there were lots of companies in the private sector who were prepared to invest over £10million in our courses – at their own expense – and to risk whether or not the courses would be profitable in the end.

      As I said before, the Council retain ownership of the golf courses and if the company running them goes bust, then the courses revert back to the Council.

      I think the deal we got was excellent and as I said before, if we hadn’t privatised the day-to-day management of these golf courses, Albert Bore would be closing the lot down in April 2013.

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  4. One thing Birmingham City Council has not explained as far as I am aware is what will happen to the current 7 acre Uffculme School site if and when the school moves ?

    Why don't they build a new purpose built school on the current site ?

    They did want to sell off Chamberlain House back in 2004 for a upmarket housing estate.

    Are they just swapping one site for the other ?

    Will they sell off the current site to a developer as soon its empty as I doubt that even a Labour council would want to build council housing on such a valuable site ?

    1. Hi, good questions which I can't answer for BCC or Uffculme School - have you asked them directly? My point is that an elected official is answerable to 'the people of Birmingham', as the Chamberlains intended in bequeathed it ‘for the benefit of the people of Birmingham’ - see

      I hope it stays that way.

  5. Councillor Narinder Kaur Kooner, Chairman of the Trusts and Charities Committee:

    thanking everyone...26th honest dialogue over Highbury’s future...some misunderstanding in some instances of what the Consultation should focus on...

    Preferred Option was unanimously agreed by the Trusts and Charities Committee on the 19 Sept for the future of Highbury Estate:

    i) Ensuring the Trust can meet its core charitable objectives which were to ensure that estate is used for “general charitable purposes for the benefit of the citizens of Birmingham”.

    ii) Ensuring that Highbury is developed in a sustainable manner and is preserved for public use both now and in the future.

    iii) Ensure that the Heritage of the estate is maintained.

    Preferred Option

    An Independent Trust will be established to manage the Highbury Estate (excluding Chamberlain House) on a 25-30 year lease. The new Trust would develop a strategy for managing the Estate and fund raising to address repairs, developing public activities and working with volunteers. The Trust would also be responsible for looking at current agreements with all activities/income generation on the estate.

    The Trust will consider leasing Chamberlain House to Uffculme School at a market value. A small part of this capital receipt will be used to develop bids to Heritage Lottery, English Heritage, historic buildings charitable trusts, towards the restoration of Highbury and the remainder will be used to fund urgent and necessary repairs in line with a capital programme of repairs for the Estate.

    Four Seasons Plant Nursery will remain in occupation of the Kitchen Gardens and will continue to use 92 Queensbridge Road as management offices...

    The new Trust will consider whether the Parks Department of the Council will become sub tenant...for the Estate lands as a whole, or keep it as a Park.

    The new Trust will need to review the existing tenancies for 98 Queensbridge Road and the Gate House...

    The new Trust will also ensure that Highbury Hall will be open to the public for community events...Income generated...maintain the Estate...Civic Catering will continue to use the Hall until 31 December 2015, but this will be on a commercial lease.

    The Caretakers House which is currently unoccupied and underutilised will be demolished...

    The drive, pleasure gardens, hobby farm and orchard would be managed as part of the house and discreetly separated from the park so that they could be used for planned charged activities (plays, bat walks, garden tours).

    Parts of Highbury Hall needs urgent restoration work...not generating sufficient income...has been the financial position for some time.

    BCC funded urgent repairs at Highbury:-

    i.) Asbestos and fire precaution works to the Hall.

    ii) The costs of maintaining/securing Chamberlain House whilst it remains empty.

    iii) The Council has established a nominal Repair Fund this financial year...

    I hope the summary information provided above clarifies any misunderstandings which may have arisen on the night and provides greater clarity to you, the citizens of Birmingham.

    I feel it is important that we now work together to make important decisions concerning Highbury’s future, particularly around:

    i) The future use of Chamberlain House;

    ii) The continued use of Highbury Hall by the Council’s Civic Catering Department to 31 December 2015 on a commercial lease, to coincide with the setting up of a new Trust, fundraising to restore Highbury, and commencement of work on site;

    iii) Finally, how, when, and who will be involved in the establishment of the new independent Trust.

    Consultation Period Extended to Monday 17 December 2012

    Representations to Highbury Consultation c/o Hall Green District Office,

    Formation of a Highbury Trust Advisory Panel

    I have instructed officers to work with key stakeholders to offer to set up an Advisory Panel...
    Please Forward this email to all your contact

  6. Marcus, I've written a bit of a tone on my blog entitled 'Why Highbury Trust should not become a fully independent trust?'

    It would be easy for me to cut-and-paste it onto here, but I feel it would completely clog up your comments section. I hope you'll understand then, why I'm just posting the link to the blog -

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