Monday, 15 June 2015

AGM of the BHI

Before the AGM, on reading the June HJ I had severe misgivings about the election of members to the Board of Directors. It sounded as though the three candidates who had withdrawn had been persuaded to, and I feared this might have been against their true wishes, due to undue pressure being put on them to do so.
This is because,sadly, not enough information was made public in advance.
The facts that were not known - at least to me! - are as follows...
The Hall is in a severe state of dilapidation, and is also contaminated with asbestos fibres, though to re-assure members, these are not an issue so long as they stay undisturbed in certain cellars and crawl-spaces. Since it is a Grade 2* Listed building we are legally obliged to maintain it - we can't just lock it up and go elsewhere, unless we can release ourselves from the responsibility by finding a buyer; and even if we were fortunate enough to do so it would be at a 'fire-sale' price. The repairs will cost several ££m. Clearly we do not have the funds to do this ourselves, and no private philanthropist has volunteered to undertake this!
In absentia said philanthropist, they have applied for Heritage Lottery Funding. If we fail to get funding from them, and can still find no private philanthropist, the Institute will probably be bankrupt within 5 years, so it is vital that this funding is obtained. Initially they were turned down - as are almost all first-time applications - but were encouraged to reapply having reduced some specified risks.
The risks in question were:
a) the scheme was trying to do too much at once - it needed breaking down into phases, with each phase having a separate application for funding
b) the management needed tightening - in particular we needed to reduce the turn-over of directors, and we needed people on the Board who had experience of managing a works project of this scale and also someone who could get control of the finances.
The three who were due to stand down and present themselves for re-election were the Chairman (no-one else was prepared to take on this role), the only member with experience of handling a works project on this scale, and our head of finance! If any of these failed to be re-elected we would almost certainly fail in the HLF application. Since two of them have serially failed to be elected in the past it was a strong possibility that at least one of them would fail in a contest, with disastrous results for the application - and consequently for the BHI. 
Mr Giles explained this individually to all the people standing for election, and I now believe that those who withdrew their candidacy did so entirely voluntarily, without any undue pressure, and that, had they decided they still wanted to stand for election, no further pressure would have been applied. 
We have now ticked the boxes required by the HLF in the new application which is about to be submitted, and have good reason to hope for the fist stage - agreement in principle - to be granted. There then follows a year of putting the detail on the skeleton plan, and a lot of work agreeing on contractors and sorting out exact costings for various aspects. This is the other reason why it was so important to retain the existing Board - we need the continuity. It would be an almost impossible task, even for someone with experience in this field, to do that work starting from scratch without having been involved in the project already.
Provided the HLF are satisfied with the result of that year's work they will then release the funds for the work to start. There is a very strong probability of this as they will have someone on the team, making sure that we do satisfy their requirements! The building can then begin the journey towards being an asset rather than a mill-stone.

As I say, I went to the AGM not knowing most of this, and consequently being minded to raise objections to the three having been persuaded to withdraw. "Surely it is up to the membership to decide who is the right person to be on the board?" and similar sentiments, but having heard the full story I changed my mind and voted for the re-election. 
However, I did so on this occasion because of the exceptional situation we are in, and with the specific caveat that I believe it should not be allowed to become the norm, as it would risk resulting in a self-selecting clique holding on to power, which is not good for any organisation.

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