An investigative report -By Mike Doherty
The online petition to save East Oxford Community Centre from being taken over by Oxford City Council had reached over 600 signatures by late last week. On the Monday of that week, a small group of campaigners and petitioners stood outside the centre; a former school and a Cowley Road landmark, and in the heat of a radiant summer afternoon sun, successfully fought off the council officers. The local press was there recording the noisy community protest, and a Cowley road resident collecting signatures for a paper petition told the Oxford Mail that “this is a valuable, fantastic community centre.”
Speaking to the Oxford Mail about the protest, Colin Aldridge, the “Interim Chair of the East Oxford Association”, the volunteer trustee association committee that manage the centre and its paid staff, told the Oxford Mail that the council had “backed down” in the face of their protest. The council later countered by flexing its legal muscles, and released a statement accusing the association of not being “fit to run such a property”, and, threatening that unless the trustees ceased “resistance”, they would have to “consider formal proceedings”.
Most community centres get in the paper because they are holding a refugee arts event, a comics convention or a children’s theatre workshop. The EOCC, to be fair, does that too, but it also gets in the newspapers because of what appear to be perennial campaigns to save it from something or other. A local wag once said to me, when a nice community-esque picture of the centre appeared in the Mail as part of the Cowley Road Carnival, that it was a change from “a picture of the centre with people waving banners outside it, or with a big padlock on the door, or as part of a crime scene with police tape wrapped around it.” The current happening at the centre is no less dramatic, but behind the heart-warming tableaux of young community campaigners protesting against council public space-snatchers, a far more murkier hinterland exists, with claims of missing bank accounts, hints of wrong-doing, resigning trustees, the mishandling of employment procedures, and a committee seeming unable to literally manage a piss-up in a bar.
It is apparent that the line in the sand has been drawn yet again with battle declared between grass-roots community and the big bad council behemoth. As the afternoon wore on and activists and council officers regrouped, online Oxford buzzed with support for the temporary victory. It seems churlish not to join in the celebrations, particularly as in 2009 I was a trustee of the East Oxford Association myself, but when I am told to; “Save our East Oxford Community Centre”, I am driven to ask: “Yes, but for whom and from what, and who exactly is the “our”?
The Council is clear that the EOCC needs to be saved for local people from the association that’s running it. The council said it had “serious concerns” about “management” and had been trying to engage the association to “rectify” this “for some time”, adding that: “We have no option in circumstances where a public asset is being mismanaged other than to terminate the licence.” It is quite clear that the “our” is the council, a local democratic public authority that owns the building.
The Association also seems clear on its opposing view, saying on its online petition page that “we want to keep the Community Centre run for the people of East Oxford and by the people of East Oxford.” Addressing the ‘from whom?’ it states that: “For many years the Community Association has been aware that the City Council has had alternative ideas for the use of the site,” It adds that the notice from the council to quit is because the council wants to “sell part of the sight for redevelopment and “significantly reduce community management of the Community Centre.” Sources close to the campaign claim to have seen plans that the centre is going to be drastically redeveloped and that the community space could be reduced to a single room.
The local politicians don’t help to resolve this either. When the council gave the association a four week notice to quit back in June, Craig Simmonds, City councillor for St Mary’s Craig and local Green Party leader, said: “The situation cannot continue as it is and action needed to be taken, but at the moment councillors disagree on the way forward.” On the other hand, Bev Clack, the Labour Councillor for the centres St Clements ward said: “It couldn’t be allowed to continue in the way it was going because that wasn’t fair to anyone. My sense is that having the council managing the centre is the best option.” While both seemed to be agreeing with the council; that the centre is being mismanaged, the disagreement appears to hinge on who fixes it – the council or the association – with Cllr Clack clearly siding with the council and Cllr Simmonds declining to state who exactly should take the necessary remedial action.
To muddy the waters, in Friday’s Oxford Mail letters page, a local resident, speaking on behalf of “the local community and groups using the centre,” said they were “keen” to see the association stay in charge, refuting the mismanagement claims by saying that the association was “a charity overseen by the Charity Commission, and their latest accounts are on the commission’s website and are up to date and audited.” It then demanded the evidence for the mismanagement claims.
The Community Centre has been here before. Way back in March 2007, a previous campaign to stop the council closing the Social Club Bar, which was then a separate entity, amidst numerous complaints about anti-social behaviour and linked police concerns, appeared to have succeeded when Oxford City Council pulled back from a threat to close it and said it would “work with the centre’s committee to fix the problem.” The problem was duly fixed when the association disbanded the Social Club and evicted the Social Bar committee, before changing the locks.
After a short closure, the bar continued for a year under a private licensee, before a new bar; ‘The Old School Bar’, was constituted as an association affiliation in 2009 and then run by a voluntary bar manager and licensee under the direction of three of the trustees formed into an attached trustee bar committee. One of the trustees, Sally Joss, was also the association chair at the time, with Sarah Lazenby, the association treasurer, having oversight of the bar account bookkeeping as well as the main centre accounts. There was an uneasy transition, as the Old School Bar manager enforced licensing regulations and volunteers helped to rid the bar of trouble-makers and strived to put in place effective book-keeping procedures, but eventually things appeared to be running smoothly and extra revenue soon started to flood into the centre’s coffers.
Now the association had a new source of income alongside the more usual booking and tenancy fees, with the bar money going through the bar committee into an account linked to but separate from the association’s main account. The stock was brought on account from Bookers cash and carry, and a cheque book, with two of the three bar trustees acting as co-signatories, was used to buy sundries and pay the security firm providing the bouncers. The takings where paid back into the Old School Bar and half of the profits then being transferred by cheque to the main association account where they then entered the community centre accounts system managed by the paid community centre co-ordinator. The remaining half of the profits went towards the refurbishment of the bar room, of which £2,000 has been spent on new fridges, £1,500 on new sofas and, eventually, £4,000 alongside a £10,000 grant from the council towards new windows. The remaining monies were banked in the bar account.
All was going well until Sally Joss resigned from the committee in March 2013. Soon after this her partner – also a trustee – initiated employment tribunal proceedings against the association. That’s probably another story, but the upshot was that a new chair and a new bar committee member were voted in from within the association.
The ‘smooth running’ was then shattered during the association’s AGM in October 2013. A few weeks prior to the AGM, the then chair had resigned and in an email sent to selected association trustees, but not made public, said: “we must be careful not to open the charity up to allegations of fraud and corruption.” After this ominous start, AGM proceeded under the Vice-Chair. Just before the elections of the new trustee committee were about to take place, the association Treasurer rose and addressed the audience, which included centre tenants, councillors, press and local people. Referring to the bar account during the sixth month period from 15th March, 2013 to the previous month, she told the assembled crowd that she didn’t know where the bar money had gone and that the bar bank account has been emptied. “I have repeatedly asked for answers,” she said. “I think we need to call the police.” She then went on to say that the bar account total, instead of moving steadily upwards as it had always done since the Old School Bar’s inception, had sunk to £408.22. The meeting immediately descended into uproar and was brought to a close, with an emergency ‘Special General Meeting’ ordered for four weeks later to address the astounding claims. The bar was ordered to present its accounts to that meeting.
A document that attempts to calculate the alleged discrepancies has emerged. It is worth examining this document because it contains the only available authoritative reckoning of the bar’s accounts. The notes in the document attempt to calculate the amount of money paid to the Bookers account and a comparison is made between the average amount paid out in the previous fourteen months prior to Sally Joss’s resignation, and the six months under the present bar committee. This, the document states, was an average of 1,523.30 a month paid out under Sally Joss’s bar committee, compared to an average of £2,275.47 per month for the six months to date since Sally Joss resigned. The notes then calculate that during the 14 months under Sally Joss, a whopping £35,021.64 of gross takings in cash was paid into the bar account, but that for the six months afterwards; “the credits were nil.”
Accounts from various sources willing to speak differ as to what had occurred, but the consensus seems to be that another account had been set up – either as a new second account within the existing financial architecture, or as a separate reconstitution of the bar as “trading wing” company or alternatively, as a “private company”. This, according to some sources, was apparently done with the agreement of the association. Other sources differ. What is clear is that a valid and complete set of accounts and bank statements have still not been presented, despite demands to see them from the wider trustee committee, councillors, council officers and concerned ex-trustees, including by a trustee who claims that he was effectively silenced by being bullied out of the committee in a process that a local councillor likened to “a Stalinist show trial.” The bar accounts do not form part of the audited accounts currently held by the Charity Commission.
The convoluted plot is thickened by the astounding information contained in another document that has recently come to light. It is the wording and notes of a motion that the then and current association trustee, Tim Murphy, presented to the emergency Special General Meeting called to discuss the discrepancies in the bar accounts. In the document, Tim Murphy first notes that there are “serious concerns about the accounts of the Old School Bar.” He then states that the (Old School Bar) “company was set up to covenant profits to the East Oxford Community Association,” but had become “too detached from the parent organisation.”
Tim Murphy then refers to the resignation email sent by the previous chair just before the interrupted AGM. It also refers to Company House records attached to the email concerning the security firm hired by the association and the related claims by the previous chair that the firm had actually been dissolved in January 2011. The document then states that: “It follows that they could not have had valid insurance from that date,” and that the chair had been attempting “for some time to obtain clarity and probity,” along with the “full and complete accounts history of the Old School Bar.” Tim Murphy’s document then ends with the proposed motion, which is: “That this meeting adopt a motion of no confidence in the Executive of the (association),” and that there should be a “thorough financial investigation employing an external accountant.”
The 2013 emergency Special Meeting finally dawned and, according to an ex-trustee who was present, most of the debate – bizarrely – centred on the 14 month period when the bar appeared to be running smoothly rather than the problematic six month period in dispute. This was described by one attendee as an “obvious distraction technique.” Due to an unfortunate accident on her way to the meeting, the Treasurer could not attend. Finally Tim Murphy’s motion was read out and then, surprisingly, voted down by the eligible enfranchised attendees present at the meeting.
It’s now over eight months later and the security firm and financial issues have still not been addressed in an open and accountable way. To add yet another twist to the story, Sally Joss has now been informed by the association that she is liable for a tax bill on the profits for the 14 months that she was one of three trustees on the bar committee. For some unexplained reason, according to this trustee, they are not liable and that it is Sally Joss’s problem to deal with. She was told “to go and get legal advice about it.”The bank statements from the claimed separate bar ‘credit’ bank account have still not come to light, another chair has resigned, hence the “interim” status of the current chair leading the campaign. On Thursday’s ‘Catweazle’ open-mike night, real ale had to be hastily brought in because the bar equipment, stock and fridges belonging to the community centre had been removed from behind the bar.
Where does all this leave the campaign to save the centre? Could all this possibly amount to the “serious concerns” about the “mismanagement” of the centre by the association that the council are talking about? And where are the “plans” that the campaigners claim to have seen that prove that the council has a hidden agenda to drastically reduce the footprint of community related space in favour of building “eco-houses.” They are said to date from 2008, but like the ‘credit’ bank account statements, they remain elusive to date.
These claimed council redevelopment plans need to be further investigated and published by the association, alongside some recognition that the council has invested in the community centre in the past. Contrary to claims made on online campaign platforms, the bulk of the new windows, the refurbishment of the foyer, the lift and the new co-ordinators office were all paid for by the council.
And they need to be open. It appears that a new association is in charge, under a new chair and that the association has taken a new radical direction. And they need to pay the tax bill for the bar that is due to former chair and trustee, Sally Joss, who over the course of the 14 months that she was on the bar committee, worked thousands of voluntary hours alongside other volunteers and the bar licensee to bring in a serious amount of money for the centre.
Community is a conservative concept. Community is a discrete social group constituted by the leaders within it and its exclusionary boundaries are defined by the people who are deemed by the insiders to not be in it. The current association and campaigners may have the best intentions at heart, but they need to seriously consider the implications of occupying a socially inclusive public building in defiance of the council. How are they going to manage the centre, its revenues, its upkeep and the paid staff in the long term with such an aggressive oppositional stance? How are they going to sort out the financial mess that they have inherited? They also need to tell the people of East Oxford when they going to hold an emergency meeting to elect a new committee and debate the current options. “Interim” chairs don’t wash. It smacks of a coup. If they don’t do this then they are just another fractious clique in a decade’s long power struggle over a financially and politically valuable local resource. The danger is that the campaign to “save” it is just a way of disguising this ongoing struggle.
The politics don’t get any cleaner the lower down the political food-chain you go, and ‘community’ is no exception. Let’s hope that the next time the centre is in the newspaper, it’s for a more mundane reason than yet more conflict over who gets to be in charge. Unfortunately, as things stand, that doesn’t seem likely. The centre should have local oversight, but its past history is anything to go by, it also clearly needs oversight from the council, something that some of its former radical patrons would probably shudder at. And there’s the rub.
By Mike Doherty.