Over the last couple of weeks, I have been exploring what made me move from my previous area of
work to become involved in the WCA and the local community. Looking back on what I wrote there
is a certain element of self-flagellation going on there! I may return to that another time but this
week I want to delve a little deeper into the circumstances which got me involved in the charity.
Back at the start of 2012, when I was still employed full time, I was approached by Fran O’Toole, the
then Secretary and Community Centre Manager at the old St Georges Road centre to see if I could
help review the finances as he knew I was an accountant and I could see they were in difficulties. At
the time I was treasurer of my local theatre group, Carlton, and we were a regular user of the centre
but were dismayed by the state of the building and were thinking of leaving.
I produced a pro bono piece of work for him in March which showed that given the current usage
they would run out of cash later in the year. The income wasn’t enough to pay Fran and the three
part time staff (Eva, Viv and Rob) let alone the upkeep of the building. It had grown dilapidated with
rats running round, a flooded basement, various leaking holes in the roof and unfit toilets. Centre
users were disappearing quickly and a major resident (Act Too) had departed the previous year.
The relationship with the Council had deteriorated and there hadn’t been an AGM for 3 years. The
charity was being threatened with being struck off for failing to submit key returns and the trustees
who had recently taken on the role were, like Fran, finding the whole thing a bit too much to handle.
It became clear from discussions with politicians and senior officers that the Council wanted the
place demolished. Ownership of the building was complicated, however, and the lease wasn’t
beneficial to the charity. Unlike other community centres in the borough, it emerged, after much
investigation, that whilst the Council owned the freehold, the charity had a one third interest should
it ever be sold, because of the way it was originally funded back in the 1950s.
Assisted by another local person, Roger Drage, who had done some consultancy work for the charity
several years earlier, we negotiated a deal with the Council to lend the charity some money on
condition that the WCA sold its interest back to the Council and vacated the building. A packed
special general meeting was held at the centre on 12 July and it was agreed to accept the deal. The
public liability insurance for the centre was withdrawn the following week so it was timely!
Over the next couple of months, assisted by Gregsons, a local lawyer, we agreed the redundancy
terms with Fran and his colleagues and helped the few existing users find alternative premises whilst
starting the negotiations to establish the one third value of the site and close the centre.
A much more sparsely attended Annual General Meeting was held round the corner at the Mansell
Road Centre on 26 September at which Roger and I agreed to become trustees alongside Dave Little
(Fran’s son-in-law) who agreed to stay on temporarily and Stephen Ashcroft, a former Councillor,
who returned for a while to assist. Jackie Chapman also agreed to become Secretary.
The next day Fran handed me the keys to the building and headed off to Europe in his newly
acquired campervan with his wife. The following month I was notified that I was being made
redundant following a restructuring at work. It wasn’t a surprise – I could see it coming – but the
timing was ironic!
Over the following winter months Jackie and I, assisted by family members, set about clearing the
centre as we sought to finalise the handover deal with the Council. More on that next time…