Thursday 23 July 2020

Day 3- Brent Council v Bridge Park

Much of today's cross-examination of witnesses from the Brent Council of the 1980s appeared inconclusive. Counsel for Bridge Park campaign seemed to shift the grounds on which they based their claim for an interest in the site, which would mean Brent Council could not dispose of it without further neogtoiation.

Initially the case appeared to be that the monies raised by the steering group and succeeding organisation meant that they had an interest as those funds contributed to the acquisition of the land at the former bus depot.  Latterly the argument seemed to be that an option to buy out Brent Council's share of the freehold gave them an interest.

At the end of today's hearing Counsel for Brent Council and the Judge sought clarity on the grounds on which the case was being argued by Bridge Park's Counsel. They will return to the issue tomorrow morning.

The parade of ex-Brent Council officers began with Meredith Thomson, Solicitor, who could not say whether Brent Council was amenable to a clause in the lease on Bridge Park giving the Steering Group/Harlesden Peoples Community Cooperative (HPCC)  an option to buy out Brent's share of the freehold of the site.  Thomson said she did not deal with HPCC, just the limited company that was wound up. The Steering Group was not the the body that would hold the asset.

Next up was George Benham, Director of Education at the time, and later CEO.  He confirmed that he had invited businesses to get involved in Bridge Park and had organised training sessions for headteachers there as well as getting involved in Itec. He recognised the strength of community involvement and said he was very much aware of the emotional attachment the community had to Bridge Park.

Charles Wood, another ex-CEO in Brent, spoke about Brent Council's concern that funds were properly accounted for. Brent Council funded Bridge Park at £350k a year, had to finance an over-draft of £130k, and rates were waived. A financial adviser was put in to assist them.  Counsel for Bridge Park said that a Deloittes report recommended changes that were not implemented by the council.  They had recommended the granting of a long lease at Bridge Park to ensure stability. Wood argued that it was the organisation that did not implement the recommendations but the council had followed the recommendation to continue to fund the project.

Counsel said that Deloittes had recommended funding beyond 1982. Wood responded that the council could not accept that as the situation had deteriorated and confidence reduced. The situation regarding the finances (as set out above) could not be allowed to continue. The organisation had not met recommendations regarding wider community involvement, better financial controls and provision of a range of services.  By that time the Deloittes recommendation was out of date.

Wood accepted that Brent Council had no objection in principle to HPCC having a long term aim of buying out the council's share of the freehold but given financial constraints of the time that was something for the future.   They never came back to it as far as Wood could recollect. Counsel put it to Wood that Leonard Johnson had refused to sign the lease because it did not contain a buy-out option. Wood said that there may have been other reasons for him not to sign.

Counsel then asked Wood about a 1992 report about the implications of discontinuation of the project and whether the council would have a £700k liability to pay funds back to the London Residuary Body (LRB) responsible for the GLC assets after abolition. Wood couldn't recall what was said at the time and what legal advice had been given but it was a fair point that the LRB would not have hesitated to get the money back.  The GLC had set out the covenant that this was council land to be managed on behalf of the community.

Wood said that the council wanted the project to be community led and community run, but not by the group currently running it. It was not ending the use of the centre.  He 'imagined' that the council stance was not breaking the covenant but continuing  the work with a different group.

Wood stated that he had worked for Brent for 9 years from 1986 and in that time no one from the group or community had raised the matter of their right to purchase the freehold.  If there had been a prior commitment it would have come back to him. He confirmed that there had been no discussion of the terms of a buy-out and an option of a buy-out only being included in the lease for a new group - 'not Mr Johnson's.' Wood said this was not what was important at the time.

The main issue was the need for the  involvement of the wider community and the group's determination to keep  control. When CEO he had seen that this was a fantastic group of young people and the council, which had reputational problems, was a great supporter of the project.  In 1982 there was a desire to support the setting up of local businesses at the centre and everyone shared the enthusiasm.  The Sports Council, London Marathon, private funding and fund-raising all contributed.

Counsel suggested that HPCC had played a 'huge role' in fundraising. Wood responded that HPCC and Brent Council had both played an important role - 'the two together.' Leonard Johnson was very charismatic. Almost as an aside, Wood stated that the organisation could over-estimate its impact and that Johnson's claim that there had been a rival offer for the bus depot of £3m was wrong -'there wasn't an offer.' Wood agreed that the project would not have happened without HPCC's actions, their credibility at the time and the support they had.

Counsel, quoting a letter sent by Head of Housing, Mr McQueen, to the Housing Action Trust (HAT) on Stonebridge, said that it conveyed a recognition that Bridge Park belonged to the community and not to Brent Council. Charles Wood responded that the council had made it clear that it was important that Bridge Park remained independent, was run by a wider group and provided services.

There was a further exchange about an internal audit report on Bridge Park. Wood said that it did what auditors do, investigate and report their findings. Counsel maintained that the findings were untested and therefore unfair.

Asked by Counsel about his not arranging a meeting with Mr Johnso when he visited Bridge Park. Wood said he had gone there with a  community worker and had been dismayed by the lack of activity there. He hadn't planned to visit Mr Johnson.

Wood reiterated that the withdrawal of the grant had been based on a failure to involve the wider community, failure to improve financial management and failure to provide the intended services.  As non-political CEO he had made the recommendation but the decision was a political one made by the council committee. Counsel suggsted that they would not have made that decision if they knew they had a potential liability to pay £700m to the GLC.

The Judge pointed out that the liability would depend on whether a project continued to be run from the premises.

There was then an exchange between the Judge and both Counsel. The Judge said that to be honest he was finding it hard to follow where the Bridge Park Counsel was going with his case.  Counsel pointed out that there was a difference between purchasing the freehold and getting the option to buy the freehold.  Counsel for Brent Council said  that public funding was at the heart of the matter and in law the defendants were not able to have an interest in the land.

That discussion will continue tomorrow before Brent Council Counsel cross-examines.

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