The following was reported in the Journal last week and I haven't got round to posting it till now:
Alexandra Park survey flops with ‘worringly low’ response
A web survey for visitors to voice their views on Alexandra Park picked up just 11 replies.
Yet park bosses admitted the dire response to the survey on the state of the park’s maintenance was still the best they have had in three years.
The head of the Alexandra Palace and Park Board called the poor response “worryingly low” despite it being distributed to hundreds of residents.
The customer survey was sent out to all 38 members of the palace and park’s advisory and consultative committees, appealing for them to forward it to other residents’ groups in the area.
Board chairman Councillor Matt Cooke said at a board meeting at the Palace on Tuesday, June 21: “I think it’s a worryingly low response. Things like this are a fantastic opportunity to promote the work that we do to engage local residents.
“It’s disturbing that only 11 members of these committees responded, let alone residents.”
He urged the Palace to put the survey on the venue’s website in a bid to have it seen by a wider audience.
Park manager Mark Evison said: “Unfortunately it was a very low turn out but the responses that we did get were that the park was satisfactory or very good.”
He later added: “This is the highest response we have had in three years.”
Good grief. I would have completed a survey. I'm very interested in development in the park and at the Palace.
Why on earth didn't they put a link on here, on Bowes and Bounds and so on?
I thought the Palace employed some kind of PR agency (maybe on a contract?)
Or they could have asked Haringey Council's press office for advice.
I'm a bit surprised they didn't come straight here.
PR cannot substitute for leadership of integrity. In theory, the park and palace are a charitable trust and in practice, its directed by a small group of politicians. Could the reason for the low response be a kind of fatigue?
Fatigue was the word mentioned by the council's lawyer in the High Court in 2007. It was argued that any additional attempts necessitated to sell Alexandra Palace might result in "market fatigue". Can there be confidence in AP while the council remains in charge?
Clive - maybe I am making a very much smaller, more technical point than you ie it appears from the story above that the questionnaires weren't very imaginatively distributed eg not via HoL and this is the kind of thing I would be asking for advice from the PR ppl on. So potentially not an excellent piece of engagement (with few responses) because they omitted digital places like this one.
I don't think PR can substitute for good leadership - but it *can* help in the distribution of questionnaires
Hugh: I was present at the meeting and was sitting by the journalist. My sense is that her story fairly reported what was said, i.e. general disappointment with the response to the questionnaire.
We frequently hear the repitition of mantras from AP, like "consult with stakeholders" "improve governance". None of it means much because the Trustee is the local council and it is an instrument of politics.
This is not how our (or any) charitable trust should be run, but we can expect little from the appropriate regulator.
One irony about the park maintenance is that it may yet become markedly superior to other parks in Haringey. Park upkeep has been a responsibility of the Charity although had the council flogged the building to Firoka they were willing to take this cost over directly (circa £750k p.a.) (This was part of the raft of sweeteners offered to the property developer).
Now, within parks under direct municipal control, maintenance may be slashed, leaving AP park to stand out by comparison.
In principle, I think there should be an annual grant from LBH to AP for AP park maintenance, as this is a huge burden on our Trust. In practice, the park may escape the Haringey hatchet.
Finally, the problem with all surveys conducted online is that of the Self-Selected Sample. It is entirely possible to conduct a scientific survey (by genuine random sample) but on line surveys are rarely representative.
If this survey had been conducted online by LBH, there would be the double disadvantage of a self-selected sample plus up to 95% of the survey requiring equal opportunity monitoring questions, such as whether your current sex differs from your birth sex.
The extent of equal opportunity monitoring questions (for which I have little time) makes me suspect that responding sample (for whatever the real question) mainly reflects those of the population who have high tolerance for municipal equal opportunity monitoring.
As far as I understand it Clive, Alexandra Palace & Park is a public space, given to 'the people' over a century ago and is managed by a Charity ('The Trust'). I have no connection to it, just go there if there's an event I like.
The Trust is run entirely by Haringey Councillors on the Board, in a mix that 'reflects the political balance' of the Borough. In other words, whichever party is in the majority on the Council will have a majority of Councillors on the Board of the Trust. They seem to rotate the Councillors from time to time. The Board can use the services of all the Council Officials it requires (such as Solicitors, planners etc.) and seems to get them for free as far as I can tell.
The trading arm tries to make money from the events etc. It has around 50 employees, many of them temporary workers - managed by salaried people including a General Manager and a Chief Finance Officer who, presumably, are professionals. The Trust is looking to appoint a Chief Executive. Looks from the latest accounts (March 2010) as if they created revenue of £5.3m with an operating profit of £396k, almost all of which went back to the Trust.
The Trust has formed two committees who have no votes but can observe, make recommendations etc - to represent the views of residents (the Advisory Cttee), and the views of interested organisations (the Consultative Cttee).
The Advisory Cttee is for residents, who are represented by one person from each of the following:
Alexandra Residents’ Association:
Bounds Green and District Residents’ Association
Muswell Hill and Fortis Green Association
Palace Gates Residents’ Association
Palace View Residents’ Association
The Rookfield Association
Warner Estate Residents’ Association
The Trust nominated one person from each of the following orgs to form the Consultative Cttee:
The commercial parts had been given to a commercial company that claimed to be able to return a profit to the Trust but it didn't work out and the Trust lost a lot of our money getting rid of them.
The Trust has debts of around £41m I think (owed to the Council so it won't go bankrupt) and appears to be losing around £2m a year, although some of this is funny money (I don't fully understand the accounts) as the trading arm appears mildly profitable.
>>This is not how our (or any) charitable trust should be run
What gives us the power to change things? We aren't elected and have no track record.
How should this public building and park be run, Clive? Seems like they've covered all the bases - pretty much anyone with a voice can get heard, it seems. You could say that Councillors shouldn't be running a commercial venture, but they're not - they employ people in the trading arm and retain contractors to do that for them, getting free stuff from the Council when they can.
Are other public spaces run in a more representative way?
Surely the answer is to help the Council run things better, not take away from them?
Chris the facts you've set out are broadly and baldly accurate but don't give the full picture. A charity does not manage our assets: it's important to remember that our charity is a Charitable Trust. Our assets are governed by the Trustee (the council) via a "Board". In practice this council committee, which meets a few times a year, acts as a rubber stamp on the reports of council employees.
The main effect of the rotation of councillors, that you mention, is discontinuity.
The undischarged debt of circa £41m is largely bogus and is kept there "in case oil is struck under the palace" (quote from a former general manager). The council will tell you that 40% of the building is derelict – what sort of a record is this after three decades. How much time should they be given to get their act together?
Conflicts of interest, between duty to the council and duty to our Trust, explain almost of the last 30 years' worth of waste, decay, mistakes, mismanagement and distorted governance.
If it is thought that the council is a benign steward, just misunderstood, then it should be remembered that for most of the last 15 years, the council's policy was the "holistic" – i.e. 100% – sale of the building for commercial property development (on a 125 year Lease).
They carefully selected the developer-of-last resort, Firoka, whose reputation I suggest you check yourself. However, the conniving permission from the Charity Commission to sell our asset was tested in the High Court in 2007 and 10 months later the developer withdrew. It took two and a half years for the council to abandon the policy of holistic sale.
Now, we have a more modest sale attempt, whereby the council seeks a music operator to take a similar long lease for up to two thirds of our Charity's premises. I predict this attempt will also fail, because no sane developer can have confidence in their counter-party. It is even admitted this latest attempt to "secure the future" is at risk of stalling.
AP was always too big to be entrusted to a single council. There is a vicious circle operating whereby operation by the rules of the Local Government Act ensure failure in this context.
The local council will probably always be represented on the Board, not because of any expertise, but simply because this is the biggest and most important building in the Borough. But independent trustees – with expertise, interest and integrity – need to be on the Board as a matter of urgency.
Apparently a group of Councils led by Hornsey clubbed together with others a long time ago to buy the place outright because the owners wanted to sell it to build houses on the the land. Because of the Londonwide Govt re-org, It was handed over to the GLA, then finally to Haringey Council in 1980, moments before a big chunk burned down. Haringey overspent by £30m on the refurb, saddling the Trust with a big debt.
So it was bought for the public by the Council in order to protect it against commercial interests, otherwise it would have been knocked down and covered in houses by now, wouldn't it?
The very idea of a place given to the public as a charitable act so that it was 'free for public use and recreation' seems to be from a byegone age - so much has changed. When I read 'free for public use', I thought, does it mean that all events should be free to attend?
I wonder how best to grow a public asset and say again, surely we need to help fix the system, not abandon it? I write this to help develop my thinking.
1) In practice, the Trust is actually run by Council Officials, because all the Councillors do is 'rubber stamp' their recommendations.
You seem to be agreeing that Councillors do have the final say (they can choose to ignore a recommendation) but imply that they are no good at the job.
This is exactly how Central Government works, isn't it? Civil Servants do most of the 'work', overseen by politicians who can appear totally unsuited to the job when measured by results and often 'rubber stamp'.
Are you saying that Councillors should not be given this sort of power, or that they don't have any? Are you saying the Councillors are lazy or incompetent?
You seem to be implicitly agree that, given that the Trust exists and only has Councillors on the Board, it's fair that the mix reflects that of the full Council - i.e the party in power has the majority of Board members.
2) the Council is unable to run a Charitable Trust because of the conflict of interest between the aims of the Trust and the aims of the Council.
Does this apply to pretty much all the Trusts run by the Council?
Should Councils be able to be run Charitable Trusts on our behalf or should that idea be abandoned?
As abandoning this would overturn centuries of practice, does it need a much stronger reason for a revolution? Are you in fact expressing absolutely no confidence in the ability of Councillors to fairly represent us in important matters of public assets, and further that they are, in this respect, incompetent? Are you also saying that Council Officials are incompetent as it's they who actually do the work, or are you saying that, because Councillors do not direct them properly, Council Officials are headless chickens wasting our assets?
3) The undischarged debt of circa £41m is largely bogus.
I'm sure you don't mean to make such a serious allegation of financial misconduct as, from what you wrote about rubber stamping, you are accusing the Chief Financial Officer - a civil servant with, presumably, no personal interest. Why would a CFO allow such a situation?
Provided the Council is willing to wait to be repaid, does it not have the effect of a long term advantageous loan to the Palace of the People? Is that not a good thing or would you rather the banks were in charge? If independent trustees were able to obtain a loan on such good terms, would you condemn them for it?
4) independent trustees – with expertise, interest and integrity
Can you give any further specifics on who we would get? Are you talking, for example, about Lord Sugar, Lord Archer or Lord Foster? Why would any of them be motivated to get involved?
Are you confident that these people will be able to be appointed by Councillors already on the Board, or do you think someone else should appoint them?
Should they have voting rights?
I ask all this because I really think that the situation can be improved, but I'm not sure what improvements would actually work, let alone how to bring them about.
It seems that Ally Pally has relatively poor public transport for a venue capable of holding 10,000 people at a single event. Parking seems way below standard. The station is further away than most people are used to in major venues. There's only one bus. The resident population don't seem to be interested enough in a nearby venue to notice it.
So, although it appears to be a goldmine, it may in fact be a bit of a white elephant.
Chris, you're dead right that Ally Pally "has relatively poor public transport for a venue capable of holding 10,000 people ". It was designed to be integrated with a railway line from Finsbury Park but this was closed in the 1950's and the route is now the Parkland Walk. There have been council plans to re-open it as a light railway but there are always howls of protest from local residents, so the council always backs down ...
But the Palace and Park were designed and built for the education and recreation of people of all London, not just Haringey, let alone Muswell Hill. The trustees used to be drawn from councils from much of north London, and ran the place pretty well and often at a surplus, but since 1980 they are only drawn from Haringey, and tend to think their duty is to the borough (which it normally is) rather than the whole of London ... and sometimes (especially when it comes to bits like the internationally-important TV studios) simply don't get the importance of what they are holding in trust. In reality they are out of their depth, and it's the officers who run the place -and sometimes have got out of control. Hence the overspending after the 1980 fire, which the Attorney-General ruled could not be charged to the charity since the money was not authorized. So you have to choose whether to believe the Attorney-General of England and Wales - the top law officer - or the then CEO of Haringey, Mr Gurbux Singh. Afterwards famous for having to resign from being CEO of the Race Relations Board after being arrested for being drunkat Lords' cricket ground, boozily saying to the policemen "do you know who I am?"
You say "The very idea of a place given to the public as a charitable act so that it was 'free for public use and recreation' seems to be from a byegone age - so much has changed. When I read 'free for public use', I thought, does it mean that all events should be free to attend?"
Do you use Hampstead Heath? or Kenwood House? or anything owned by the National Trust? all these are places which those funny old Victorians and Edwardians also decided should be "given to the public as a charitable act so that it was 'free for public use and recreation'". The difference is, they are run by very eminent, committed, expert trustees who actually want to do what they are doing. And are good at managing.
The original trustees of Ally Pally were as well - people like Henry Burt, who also built Hornsey's first free public libraries (another daft Victorian idea, maybe). One or two current Haringey councillors are quite successful businessmen. But they are not on the board of AP.