If we step back from the detailed considerations required by the planning process, whatever the outcome of the Planning Committee’s meeting on 24th June, the whole dismal saga of the Bowls conflict reveals some long-term issues which need to be resolved.
The row over the Bowls Club is not a private conflict between the bowlers on the one hand, and the CEO and the Board of the CIC on the other. It is a direct challenge to the values and methods of those who manage Gunnersbury, and one they are comprehensively failing.
While millions of pounds have been poured into providing a fantastic range of sports facilities, the Bowls Club is the only sport already in the Park which was given 18 months to find the money to restore and then pay an annual full repairing lease on its building, for which up to then the Councils has taken ultimate responsibility.
When the Club crumpled under this pressure, what did the CIC do? Did it respond to the Club’s difficulties with energy and expertise to help them grow the sport, attract new members and secure it for the future? Did it advertise to other Bowls Clubs that Gunnersbury was available? Did it attempt to find an alternative community user – as Hounslow’s policy on community assets requires? Did it consult with the public and park users about how this site might be best used? In the absence of an alternative community user, did it offer it on the open market to identify a business that could bring real community benefits to the park?
It took none of these steps. It took the advice of the Assistant Director for sport and leisure at Ealing Council, also Ealing’s Lead Director on the CIC; he was familiar with Putt in the Park because Ealing had brought it in to replace the Bowls Club in Acton Park in 2016. Without any public consultation, the CIC made an agreement which promised PITP a long-term lease if they got planning permission. But the green and pavilion are public assets, funded by decades of local taxation and volunteer effort. Over the years, other public assets in the park (such as the Small Mansion) have been marketed properly with publicity. What might be so different about this green and pavilion?
In explaining this move, press statements from the CIC have stressed the small number of bowlers, their “exclusive” use of the site, the CIC’s need for revenue, and the benefit to the wider community of an alternative use.
This coded language means the bowlers were probably older people, probably white, apparently unable to pay their way and were keeping the public off this part of the park. This attitude towards the bowlers has persisted throughout the debate, culminating in a zoom discussion hosted by local councillors in March 2021 in which the CEO of the CIC spoke contemptuously about the Bowls Club, justifying his every action as the considered decision of the Board, so we have to conclude this is the also the stance of its Chair and Directors.
A Community Interest Company with even half an eye to its central purpose would have found a way of working with the Club to prevent it losing access to the site. It could even have used its web site to generate support, as it has done to promote Putt in the Park (including hosting a prize draw competition to encourage people to register an interest in the business).
No one who has followed the progress of Gunnersbury Park in detail will deny that the CIC started with some major handicaps – especially the restoration delays and overspend which deeply disrupted the funding model, together with the long-running construction nightmare of the Sports Hub and the pitches. The herculean task of keeping the park as open as possible during the long periods of lockdown has earned the gratitude of thousands of both new and long-standing visitors. And the appearance of the place with the evident enthusiasm and skills of the gardening team is vastly better than it has been for decades.
But one of the primary purposes of a CIC lies in its name. In its desperation to earn an income, this CIC has focussed hard on commercial opportunities, some of which have been welcomed while others have damaged its relationship with the surrounding community. It seems to have had no strategy for supporting smaller scale activity which could benefit groups in the community like the Bowls Club, which had operated in this public park for over 90 years. Despite being vested with public assets, its whole approach has been one of “ownership” and with it an entitlement to privacy. It rebuffs Freedom of Information requests, it will not publish how much funding it needs and why, it has no public strategic plan, its board meetings are unreported and when it meets the public in its Big Conversations it hears repeated requests for more communication. Its annual reports to the CIC Commissioner on the benefits it has brought to the community and its consultations with stakeholders are embarrassingly slight.
In reality it is much closer to being an Arm’s Length Management Organisation, with two Lead Directors who represent the councils which draw up the annual agreement, and then represent the Company which accepts it. As Keith Townsend, who had chaired the Project Board for the restoration, and was Lead Director for Ealing on the CIC, said at the public meeting at the Waterman’s Arts centre, this was the one model which allowed the councils to retain control.
Covid emergency funding has brought the CIC some respite financially for the current financial year. Work is in progress to decide how the revised master plan will be consulted upon, developed and gradually implemented. Both developments underline the opportunity now to find a different and better community-related solution to the future of the bowls pavilion and green, and also to consider how developing the concept of “trusteeship” more generally might help the CIC directors ensure a more productive future for the organisation which runs our park and museum.
14 June 2021