Caption for top photo

"Hello Radiolympia. This is direct television from the studios at Alexandra Palace!" *

THESE were the immortal words spoken to camera by Elizabeth Cowell and received at the big Radio show at Olympia, in West London. This was amongst similar test transmissions during August 1936, prior to the beginning of regular broadcasting just a couple of months later, on 2 November 1936.

Alexandra Palace was the birthplace of scheduled public, "high" definition television broadcasting in the UK and arguably, the world.

The American Modern Mechanix magazine of May 1935, described this as, England Will Broadcast First Chain Television Programs, to "Lookers".

BBC Studios A & B are the world's oldest surviving television studios.

YET in 2007, our People’s Palace was to be sold down the river by its very guardians – the Trustee – the London Borough of Haringey. The TV studios were to be destroyed with the connivance of the local council. Here is raw uncensored opinion and information about the scandal of the attempted fire-sale of our Charitable Trust’s asset, for property development. It includes letters sent to local papers, published & unpublished.

AFTER receiving a slap-down from the High Court (2007, October 5), two and a half years went by before the council finally abandoned its 15-year-old policy of "holistic" sale (i.e. lock stock and barrel). Then there was an attempt at partial sale ("up to two-thirds") to a music operator but without governance reform. To tart the place up for a developer, the council blithely sought about a million pounds towards this goal, a further sum of cash to be burnt.

THE local council has proved itself, to everyone's satisfaction, to have been a poor steward and guardian for over 20 years. Now, the master plan (below) developed under the new CEO Duncan Wilson OBE deserves to succeed.

It would be also be a big step forward to have a Trust Board at least partly independent of Haringey Council. 'Outside' experts would be an advantage. They'd likely be more interested, committed, of integrity and offer greater continuity. Bringing independent members onto the board and freeing it from political control would be the best assurance of success, sooner.


More honesty and less secrecy is needed in AP debate

COUNCIL management of Alexandra Palace has generated heated criticism over the years. Unfortunately, little new light was shed on the shady affairs of our Trust in the article (Ham and High 17/01) run over the name of its Chairman. It seems the public – the owners and beneficiaries of the Trust – are still expected to be content with bluster and platitudes.

IT IS possible that the article may have been drafted or edited by Lexington Communications, one of London’s more expensive Public Relations companies. Since 2005, that PR firm has been retained at a cost to our Charity of more than £180,000. According to their website, Lexington specialize in crisis management and one of their jobs has been to represent Trust-bungling to the public in the best possible light. The possible PR-hand in the article may explain the welter of warm woolly words of waffle.

Who is the real ‘Burden’?

WE are told that the trading company (APTL) has to generate the maximum profit possible to lighten the burden of the Palace from the Haringey taxpayer. This is misleading because:

(a) Councillor-trustees deprived our Charity of hundreds of thousands of pounds by agreeing prematurely to let Firoka take possession of trading operations (early 2007) without completion; (b) the ballooning of the deficit in the last 18 months was caused by wasteful expenditure relating to the council’s bungled sale attempt; (c) the council evaded the large recurring cost (up to 2006) of maintaining the associated public park: the burden was carried by our Trust; (d) the council, in defiance of the 1996 ruling of the Treasury Solicitor, lumped their huge interest costs into Palace’s accounts and (e) on the whole, AP has been subsizing the council and not the other way around, as the council would have us believe.

For the ten years to the end of 2006, the AP trading operations were modestly profitable. The Trust accounts have been analysed by an independent accountant whose findings can be seen at:

Myth of the White Elephant

The chronic council-burden is represented by fitful control exercised by transitory, inattentive trustees who occasionally authorize reckless spending. Alexandra Palace is not a burden on the council; it is the other way around.

Progress and development in 27 years?

IT IS misleading to characterize the opponents of the sale to Firoka as having an “obsessive agenda against development and progress”. In the High Court filings (Statements of Fact and Grounds of Challenge #4), for SAP it was warranted:
It should, however, be noted that the claimant and the members of the ‘Save Ally Pally campaign’ of which he is part, are not by any means opposed in principle to the granting of leases by the Trustees or to appropriate development of Alexandra Palace”.
It is council stewardship which has lacked flair and vision: the only vision the council could see was that of a property developer. The lack of progress and development over the last 27 years is not the fault of any one councillor, but a monument to Municipal meddling. Yet the potential of the building is huge, possibly as a world-famous tourist attraction, The Birthplace of Television with panoramic views across Europe’s biggest city.

The article recognizes that the Palace is an ‘historic asset’ but there’s no mention of why it is a potential UN World Heritage Site. It is a great pity that the Lease agreed by the council made no provision for keeping the world’s first television studios and indeed, there was expectation that they would have to go. Why must ‘securing the future’ necessarily mean demolishing the past?

Simply by not caring, Haringey has distressed the asset, but when Listing issues are raised, it is not unknown for developers to speed up the distressing of assets – it eases the wholesale (“holistic”) development of the prime parts. The irony is that the world’s first public TV broadcast was the inspiration for the council’s logo for 40 years.

Chronic council misleading
THE council never released any AP sale-related documents before the end of the Public Consultation (5 January 2007). Heavily redacted versions of some documents were released after formal application under the Freedom of Information Act and some documents were never released.

Yet in July 2007 in a council debate, the Chairman asserted (all recorded on web-cam) that AP’s future was “all in the public domain”. This kind of misrepresentation will continue as long as AP remains a political football.

It would be nice to be able to overlook council conduct in these matters; but anyone in doubt about Trust deceit and duplicity has only to read the evidence and Decision of the High Court.

The successful Judicial Review shone a powerful spotlight on Trustee machinations and Justice Sullivan delivered his decision to quash the Lease in cool, reasoned terms.

The suggestion of AP “as a centre point of our community; alive with people from all over our borough” misses the point that the building is more than just a Borough or London asset: it is nationally and internationally important. The article’s sentiment about community also needs to be contrasted with earlier statements from Palace spokesmen which implied the need to offload the venue was more desperate than ever.

We need the misleading and the misrepresentation to end. The only purpose it serves is to promote mistrust of the Trust.

A vision not shared: a casino and 30,000 square feet of offices

The article speaks of the need to create “a Palace fit for the people of Haringey and beyond to enjoy for many years to come”. That enjoyment may refer to the small casino, which the chairman has said was a myth and never part of the final proposals.

But is it not the case that after a fire-sale to Firoka, the People’s Palace could see conversion to 30,000 square feet of offices, likely to be let at full market rental? Would this office space replace only the world’s first TV studios or would it spread into most of the East Wing?

The User Clause in the agreed Firoka Lease (finally obtained under the Freedom of Information Act 2000) provides for:—use as a small casino (as referred to in section 7(5) (c) of the Gambling Act 2005); and—use as offices for community based uses and other uses, not exceeding 2,788 m2 of Net Internal Area within the area shown [ ] on the Plan.
The article spoke twice of a shared vision with the public. The Trustees so little wanted to share these visions, that they did all in their power, including unlawful actions, to ensure they never saw the light of day. It took no less than defeat in the High Court for these visions to be ‘shared’. And within days of that defeat in October, the Trust had resolved unanimously to persist with the agreed Lease.

Was the big office development shown in the Palm Court display? Perhaps for the Trust Chairman, “providing a range of exciting uses” does include a huge swathe of commercial office space, but it may disappoint locals who hoped for something even more interesting.

What we need is plain speaking and an end to public relations spin which only promotes cynicism about the council. What is meant by “move forward together with a mutual aim of securing our palace for everyone”? Sorry to appear so rude, but does that mean selling the building for £1.5m to Firoka for offices, or not?

Obsession with secrecy

ANY resident daring to ask to see documents relating to the sale of our asset (under the Freedom of Information Act) was refused on grounds of commercial confidentiality. As was found by the High Court, Haringey council put great pressure on the Charity Commission to throttle public information and make an utter farce of the Consultation.

The article speaks of “working harder to ensure the public knows what is going on up at the hill”? But the current chairman has often chosen to exclude press and public from Board meetings. Will this policy change? Allowing us beneficiaries to hear deliberations of our Charity would be a good start. Perhaps that is what is meant by “new means of engaging with local people”?

We need the obsession with secrecy and control to end – they serve no purpose except to reduce public confidence. We need transparency, information and questions answered. For example, why should a council company (APTL) be applying to the council for a permanent gambling licence at the Palace? In that decision, what role was played by the public or the advisory or consultative committees?

Previous policies have kept the public in the dark and stifled debate, even though AP is our building and owned by our charitable trust. It has been our misfortune it has been controlled by a single, skint council. Understandably, the chairman does not want to discuss how the present situation arose. The lost opportunities of 27 years, the bloody-minded policy to get rid of AP for a pittance, the waste of money in that pursuit, all happened before the current chairman’s tenure.

Effect on APTL staff and customers

PERHAPS the most damaging and regrettable aspect of the seven-month period in which the Trust let in Firoka to run the Palace, was the effect on staff morale and the lives of workers. Firoka’s aggressive management style drove away staff and customers.

Firoka bosses turning up the heat, may have been calculated to reduce the viability of the existing business and prepare a situation for flexible asset-stripping. It was cheaper for the developer-of-last-resort to create conditions such that staff left of their own accord, rather than having to pay redundancy.

APTL lost both staff and reputation. The promoter of the Antique & Collectors Fair for 25 years was unable to agree new terms with the Firoka boss. On the Pig and Whistle website she said:
“key members of staff have left, the new management have shown a lack of understanding of the complexities of running the event …”
After the Trust nearly suffocated APTL, its resuscitation is now presented to us as a success. The truth is that reviving APTL was forced on the council because of the unlawfulness of Firoka’s continued occupation of the Palace and thus far, Firoka’s failure to respond with a firm commitment. The continued pleading with Firoka to take over, is the mark of an organisation still keen to abdicate responsibility.

Waiting for the developer-of-last-resort

THE Trust’s declared intention is to “wait for Firoka’s decision with confidence”. The public is waiting with apprehension as we now know how flawed the deal is. How is the public involved with this process? Firoka’s decision would relate to a deal Cooked up by the council in secret. Apparently, the council is still prepared for the same deal to go ahead – will they be more open and honest now?

The PR smokescreen is intended to hide the hedging-of-bets by the Trust. The haziness of the Trust’s timetable is alluded to by reference to decisions taken to secure the Palace’s future for “the medium term”. The short-term is a total write-off, while the prospect of a long-term future with the council makes hearts sink. “Immediate development” may not be possible, and there is doubt whether the council’s developer-of-last-resort will commit, sue, or slink away.

The council may not have noticed that the economic outlook is not good – particularly for the leisure sector and for commercial property. This could be the deciding factor and the council may be waiting a long time for Firoka’s decision.

We are told that AP has a future. But what kind of future? Is the get-rid-of-it policy still on, or off? Is the articulated lorry steered by the chair, careering ahead or not? Organizations with resolve and direction do not perform U-turns. If Firoka return tomorrow with a ‘firm commitment’, will there be another screeching U-turn? Any more driving like this and there won’t be much rubber left on the tyres.

Ultimatum? What ultimatum?

IN December, it was reported in the press that the Trust had given Firoka two weeks to make a “firm commitment”. This demand expired on 28 December without response. The tactic failed and the Trust looked more feeble than ever.

The PR article muddied the waters by having us believe that no ultimatum was issued in the first place, so an ultimatum could not have failed, could it?

To pretend no ultimatum existed only serves to demonstrate a lack of clarity. By continuing to wait for a decision from Firoka, the Trust is signalling that APTL might be a stop-gap, that they are standing by, ready to shut APTL down again in the future. This message leaves uncertainty hanging over the future and hobbles the declared intention of getting APTL to generate the maximum profit possible.

Council vacillation about the lack of response to the cut-off date/ultimatum has left APTL as a hostage to fortune. It would be preferable from all points of view if the council acted decisively and announced the Firoka deal was ended. Any idea of selling to an asset-stripper must end and end now.

Trust past and future trust

A FUTURE Leader of Haringey may yet be candid enough to regret dealings with Firoka, in the same way that the leader of Oxford City council recently and publicly regretted his own council’s past dealings with that property developer (see: saga of Oxford United Football club).

The original rationale for placing our Charity in the control of a local council was to provide a backstop in case of financial trouble. The trust could not go bankrupt because the enduring council would always be there to underwrite any loss. In practice, the very involvement of the council has increased the financial problems due to poor management, for example the more than £20m cost overrun on the re-building after the fire. The building was de facto incorporated into the council empire and drawn in to the traditional culture of municipal management. Alexandra Palace was run by amateur council managers and treated as a municipal block for 27 years.

The council privately realized their continuing involvement was not ideal and tried quietly to give it away to a property developer. They would care little what happened after that point: it would be off their hands. But AP was not theirs to sell. We need the long heavy council burden lifted and our Charity returned to us, the beneficiaries.

Few would envy Councillor Cooke’s job as chair

THE current chair is the same age as the length of time AP has been in Haringey’s hands. He cannot be responsible for the chronic, deep-seated problems with our Trust. The problems are inherited from previous politicians and past misconceived policies. Because the current chair is also a politician, it is too much to expect recognition, let alone acknowledgement, that predecessors made mistakes which cost taxpayers dear.

Councillor Cooke now chairs both the Trust Board and APTL and bears a heavy responsibility for the AP future. But he also has a rare, brief chance to break the cycle of one AP chair handing on AP’s problems to the next chairman. One of Haringey’s mistakes is believing that all their AP problems will be over as soon as they get rid of AP to a property developer – but still remain as Trustees. It will be hard to let go.

There is little long-term hope for AP while it continues – as it has for the past 27 years – under council trusteeship. The trustees, including the chair, are all fleeting figures whose priorities are properly their wards and council business. Councillors are only ever able to give AP passing attention and then only for a year or two before new faces arrive.

The ‘advice’ that is acted on by the councillors – and in practice, the real decisions – come from long-term senior AP employees and hangers-on, who are deeply entrenched. Some of their advice to the transitory politicians, including legal advice, has been questionable and the Board might reflect on this. If the still relatively-new chairman is sincere about things at the Palace changing, he would be sensible to question closely the ‘advice’ he receives from the advisors handsomely paid for by us.

Problem presents opportunity for radical change

THE council might allow that the Trust has long been a distraction from core council responsibilities. If the council still want to divest themselves of this Trust asset – and there would be few who would dissent from that proposition – they will have to consider the tough and difficult decision to hand over responsibility to new trustees who have abiding interest in the building and its internationally important history.

Any continuation of the failing, flog-it-to-Firoka policy could end up in the High Court again. When the Trustees are defeated again, they may begin to detect their policy is not ideal. But, in the wake of the humiliation of a damning Court defeat – and its repercussions – there are created conditions conducive to real radical change.

Management theory has it that problems also present opportunities. The fact there is a big problem at the Palace also means that the chance for dramatic change is also large. Matt Cooke could build a big positive reputation as a fixer if he seized the chance: exhibit bold leadership and cast out the old failed policies.

This would see the council relinquishing control of our Palace by handing over responsibility to a new fully independent board of dedicated trustees, appointed for their experience and professionalism. In this way we would see a return of the People’s Palace to the People and set in motion a virtuous chain of events that leads to a restoration of AP to its world famous heritage status. A win-win outcome for both the Council and the People. A consensus.

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