Flushing Toilet Mars Victoria Hall Trustee Meeting

Campaigners say Charity Commission concerns not being addressed

Friends of Victoria Hall
Picture: Friends of Victoria Hall


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Campaigners have hit out at a “pretty hopeless” and “shoddy” meeting of Victoria Hall trustees where there was “virtually no discussion” over serious concerns of the site being sold off to hotel developers. 

In a meeting of technical glitches, and at one point the sound of a flushing toilet, Friends of Victoria Hall chair Roger Green said: “It kind of says it all, they are trying to flush us down the pan.”

A deal between Ealing Council and hotel developer Mastcraft to sell off Ealing Town Hall has been in the pipeline since 2016, but has been blocked since the discovery the deal would involve selling off assets -some of which did not belong to the council. Victoria Hall – located inside the town hall – was built from public donations and belongs to Victoria Hall Trust, set up in 1893.  

The council has insisted that Victoria Hall, a venue for community events, will still be accessible for the borough's groups and charities once the whole building is turned into a boutique hotel, but campaigners have warned some community groups will no longer qualify for discounted rates or be able to book for peak weekend slots under the commercial deal.

The sell-off plan came as Ealing Council claimed it could no longer afford to maintain the building and fund repair works due to local government funding cuts. 

Victoria Hall. Picture: Friends of Victoria Hall

But plans submitted to the Charity Commission on how a lease would operate, were considered not in the best interest of the charity by the watchdog in April this year.

The council has also confirmed it has so far spent approximately £1,942,000 on the deal. 

In a damning report, the Charity Commission agreed to the plan in principle but called for “stronger protections” for the charity in the proposed deal.

A spokesperson added, “We are not satisfied that the decision to lease to the commercial developer,  on the terms agreed, is in the best interests of the charity. 

“We expect the charity to reconsider this deal, in light of our decision, and we have made a series of specific recommendations to the charity to consider.

“We expect the charity to now undertake further work to consider how they can best advance the interests of the charity and the benefit it delivers to the Borough of Ealing.”

A General Purposes Committee meeting was held on Monday, June 29, to discuss options to revise the scheme following the Charity Commission's recommendations. 

Gill Rowley and Eric Leach deliver a petition to the Charity Commission

Trustees were reminded to act in the charity's best interests as trustees, separate from their role as councillors on Ealing Council. 

Speaking to councillors ahead of the votes, Mr Green warned that “major issues” had not been faced in reviewing the scheme going forward, particularly over conflict of interest between the trust and the council, the extent of the trust's property being established and the best way to secure a return of its assets being sold off.

It was also questioned how the interests of a hotel operator can be reconciled with the needs of the Trust's beneficiaries – the people of Ealing. 

“Ignore this at your peril. There is a very high risk that they [the Charity Commission] will reject any half-heartedly revised scheme,” said Mr Green.

Ahead of the meeting deputy leader of the opposition, councillor Anthony Young, also said the Charity Commission's ruling was “extraordinary” and urged the council to adopt the watchdog's call for independent trustees to be appointed to the charity. 

The trustees are currently made up of seven Labour councillors, one Conservative and one Liberal Democrat. 

Cllr Young said: “In all my 42 years on the council, I have rarely seen such a frank report criticising the council. 

“In this case, the criticism is of the council's failure to manage the conflict of interest arising from wanting to sell-off the town hall and its trustee role of looking after the public's interest in the site. 

 “The Charity Commission also did not accept that the council was managing its trustee role via the council's general purpose committee, which has seven Labour members including the chair, out of nine members, and pointed out the lack of independent members.

“We are therefore calling for the Labour administration to listen to the Charity Commission and to appoint an independent board of trustees instead of the trustees being councillors already committed to selling off Ealing's Victorian heritage.”

The meeting of trustees saw a vote in favour of reaffirming existing processes in place to manage potential conflicts of interest, but to also review the procedures to see what other safeguards could be put in place. 

Other votes included to make further arrangements with Mastcraft over community group use of the hotel, and defer a decision over the use of income made for the charity until the scheme is approved. 

Trustee Jon Ball, also a Lib Dem councillor, expressed concerns to colleagues that despite the Charity Commission's review, “it seems we're going ahead with something which is not really taking on board these primary objections'.

But legal advice given to the trustees was that the best deal had been thrashed out with Mastcraft and explored in detail. 

Director of legal and democratic services, Helen Harris, added, “We have tried to group the issues but if you would like us to go back on particular details if you feel we haven't set out options you would like to see, that's why we have an option of a further meeting.”

Trustees unanimously agreed to revisit the details of the revised plan in a further meeting, provisionally set for July 30.

Committee chair Kamaljit Nagpal said: “I think we've all voted in the right way because this is far too important and I think we all agree we want to come back and have a look at it again.” 

Mr Green however said the outcome was a “hardly changed” plan, adding: “They don't deserve to get away with it. We could hardly call it a meeting, there was no discussion of the very serious concerns of the Charity Commission. 

“Some of those options were a choice between not very good and another not very good one.”

Anahita Hossein-Pour - Local Democracy Reporter

July 1, 2020

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