Wednesday 22 July 2020

Day 2 - Brent Council v Bridge Park

The cross-examination of ex Brent Council Leader Thomas Bryson continued when the Court resumed this morning. Bridge Park's Counsel was trying to establish that the HPCC (Harlesden People's Community Co-operative) had the aim of eventually buying the freehold of the former bus depot site.  Bryson said that ownership of the land had not been discussed at presentations on the project. It was a partnership whereby both the Council and HPCC wanted it for the community. He knew of it as a long-term aim but did not sign up to it. He did not remember the purchase of the freehold by HPCC becoming a factor in any discussion.

The financial assistance had been for the HPCC and Brent Council was the conduit.  Asked about a note on the financial risk involved Bryson  said that any scheme had risks  - it was a fact of life - but concern was not expressed at any presentation. It involved a great amount of money without a great deal of experience in those proposing to run it. He assumed the council was satisfied with the organisation but couldn't remember.

Bryson agreed with the proposition that Stonebridge and the local area remained quiet because of the effects of the community project.  He said ownership of the freehold remained with the council, if that was to change there would have to be a buy out,

The next witness was Carolyn Downs, Brent Council's current Chief Executive. Having worked on the Inner Urban Programme for Haringey Council she said her understanding was that voluntary organisations worked with LAs in partnership and that the property never belonged to anyone but the council. Asked if the Department of the Environment would  judge whether monies went to private organisations, she that in the HPCC case it didn't. Brent couldn't buy the bus garage on its own but was expected to provide matched funding. Money was provided to purchase the asset and HPCC took the responsibility for running it.

Downs did not accept that Brent Council was merely a conduit for the cash - all Inner Urban Programmes had sponsors outside the council.  Challenged by Counsel that if HPCC had not applied the council would not be in the possession of the land, Downs said this was true of all Urban Programmes - everything the council does is for the benefit of the community. Since she had been employed by the council she had never regarded Bridge Park as a charitable asset,

On the issue of consultation with the community Downs said the council had employed an independent external company to consult with the community. Counsel quoted her 2017 statement that Brent Council was not going to negotiate with Brdige Park campaigners over the land ownership because there was nothing to negotiate about. Downs responded that the council had made numerous attempts to meet with the defendants.

Since 2013 plans had been changed to provide a larger facility in response to the community feedback.  Profits from the scheme would be invested locally, however litigation had halted a lot of the negotiations taking place. The £80m project had been on the point of signing. Counsel asked how much flexibility had GMH holdings shown over provision of business units and function rooms in the facility, At this point a council officer intervened to make a point about commercial confidentiality.  Counsel asked if it was possible to take the community on board via the charity but Downs said she could not speak for GMH.

Counsel suggested that Brent Council was taking a facility away from the community. Downs responded that this was not true - the community were getting a modern, enhanced facility and the council was remaining true to the Bridge Park legacy.

Questioned over demographic changes Downs said that Brent Council's job was to serve the community as it is now - not as it was in 1981.  Documents at the time had expressed concern that HPCC did not reflect the whole of the community.

Asked if it would have been possible for Brent Council to grant HPCC an interest in the land, Downs said, 'Yes, but it didn't.'

The next witness was Arthur Boulter (apologies if I did not get the spelling right - the name was not displayed on Skype) who is now 91 and was Director of Finance in Brent Council in 1981 having started with the borough in 1976.

Counsel asked Boulter about whether HPCC had obtained charitable status at the time. He said he wasn't involved in any discussion about that but if it had been a charitable trust it would have had to be kept separate in accounts otherwise it would have been picked up by the District Auditor.

He said Bridge Park was a corporate asset owened by the London Borough of Brent.  There was no discussion of the land being purchasd for charitable purposes. He dealt with the finances rather than the legal side, his job was to get the money.  Asked if Urban Aid was financial assistance for HPCC he said, 'No never! It was an application made by Brent, for Brent and for the purposes of Brent.'

Counsel asked if the money had to be passed on to HPCC. Boulter said that it was entirely within Brent Council. HPCC were not able to apply for it themselves. When Counsel suggested, 'They had to give it to HPCC. It was conditional that it went to HPCC.' Boulter said firmly, 'I don't agree.'

Urban Aid was directed at specific projects, in this case the purchase of the bus depot. Brent Council would have found it difficult to find the resources for the alternative course of action of buying the depot itself. Boulter said the facts were that Urban Aid was applied for and the council had got it along with money fro the GLC and other grants.

Boulter said that HPCC were extremely helpful in helping get Urban Aid for the council but he would not say that they had played a leading role. Everyone at the time wanted to promote harmony. Given the needs of the time it was extremely likely that Brent would have got the money with our without HPCC, although he acknowledged their contribution. He wasn;t aware the HPCC wanted to buy the freehold.

Boulter disageed with Counsel that this was an HPCC project, it was also Brent Council's whose aim was to benefit all the community. He said, I do not agree the bus garage was bought because of the assitance if HPCC, it was with their assistance.

The Judge asked if there was an obligation to pay back the 25%  required by Urban Aid; did Brent ever think to recover that from HPCC. Boulter said there was no intention of recocovering the funds but if HPCC had acquired the freehold the money would have come back to Brent. The GLC and other grant money would also have had to be repaid.

Merle Abbott (Amory) previously leader of Brent Council was the next witness.  She was elected for Stonebridge ward in a by-election in 1981. She was aware of the Hill Top Club on Stonebridge as  well as HPCC. She was aware of Leonard Johnson but no other HPCC members. With Brixton and Toxteth erupting they wanted to ensure it did not happen in Brent. She had heard that Mr Johnson took a microphone to disperse a crowd on the estate, although she had not seen that for herself.  At the time the council was going to all the estates where youth were disaffected. Johnson attended a meeting on the estate organised by David Haslma of Harlesden Methodist church and she would not wish to downplay Johnson's role in linking youth with the local authority. 

The council and HPCC worked together to purchase the garage site. HPCC had been really helpful in getting the money and they worked together to get a grant from the European Social Fund in 1982. They wanted to develop a project for the community.  Counsel reminded Abbott about a US visitor who spoke about enpowerment and control - the community should do things for themselves  rather than have things done for them.

It was not Abbott's understanding that HPCC wanted the freehold. She was a supporter of developing the garage as a community project, HPCC were active in presenting their joint  vision for a project that would benefit the community.  The mindset of national and local government (GLC) at the time was that they need to supoort projects in disadvantaged areas so she could not say that Brent would not have received the funding anyway, in view of what was happening nationally,  It had been Brent Council and HPCC campaigning together for the depot.

Abbott told Counsel that he was not making a distinction between HPCC and the community. There were other groups in the steering group apart from HPCC. HPCC was not The Community.  She said that she did not know that HPCC had aspirations to own the freehold but by 1982 she was deputy leader and less involved as she had wider responsibilites.

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