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 It includes letters sent to local papers, published & unpublished.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.


AP: where we stand today: the consultation about the future of our Trust, Alexandra Palace

LAST month, I attended the Stakeholder Workshop at Alexandra Palace with about 40 other interested people. At last this was a genuine attempt at consultation. Although things are moving slowly, after a long time in the wilderness, the Palace may finally be pointed in the right direction.

At this point of change, it is worth reflecting on how far the fortunes of Alexandra Palace have come over the last 15 months, since a former slum-landlord finally withdrew his interest.

In 1980, control of our Palace passed from the GLC to Haringey council. The new Trustee began with a big dowry (£8m) and good intentions. In the same year a devastating fire led to a then-huge insurance payment (£20m?). Haringey, with all that cash, then proceeded to lose all control over re-building costs. Haringey had a fool for a client while the Trust had a fool for a custodian.

Our Trust has been stewarded with the all the flair of parking wardens; our building was managed with the dynamism of an estate manager; and our People’s Palace was marketed with all the entrepreneurship of a municipal swimming pool. Our council-run Trust has limped along for more than 20 years. The involvement of a single, skint council has been seen to have been an unmitigated disaster.

AP is so big that it was always beyond the resources of one local authority. But if all the cash wasted on consultants and sale attempts over the years had been spent on repairs, we might at least have had more to show for our money.

THE CORE problem has always been the Trustees’ conflict of interest: between their duty to the Trust and their duty to the Council. This affected every decision they made from biggest to the smallest and every poor decision of the Board begat another poor decision. When there were two choices before the Trustees, they normally chose the wrong one. This record of failure extends over 29 years.

For more than a decade, the council-trustee has had a policy of the “holistic” sale of all Alexandra Palace – in one go – to a property developer. This was a policy of despair but which would have swept a much dirt under the carpet.

The policy of outright sale, for exclusively commercial use of our Charity’s main asset, was always unlawful. This assertion was not tested in court but that was the considered opinion of a leading Charity barrister.

What was tested in the High Court (in 2007), was the proposition, that the Public Consultation organised by the Charity Commission, was unfair and unreasonable. The Judge agreed easily. The case was in the name of Jacob O’Callaghan but he was acting on behalf of all of us. The judge’s quashing of the Lease was the beginning of the end for the entire flog-it policy.

There is no illusion that the current policies have been brought by a change of heart: real consultation is happening now only because the sham consultation of the Charity Commission (insisted on by Cllr Charles Adje's Trust), was exposed in the High Court.

In the past there have been attempts to rescue our Palace: but the difference this time is that it follows the most spectacular defeat ever of the municipal Flog-it policy. If would be helpful and would concentrate minds, if the council were to announce formally, that the Flog-it policy is ended. There is still cynicism today, but there is surely no alternative to radical change to our Trust’s governance.

Having circled our Palace for about three years, with jaws snapping, in August 2008, Firoka announced that they were ending all interest. Last March came the less welcome news that they are suing our Charity for £6.2m. The Board should resist this cheeky claim robustly with an expert competent legal adviser.

The past focus of the Board has always been short-term. One of the enduring themes of AP governance is that we can’t discuss openly and learn from a past mistake, because it would be embarrassing and might affect current operations.

A recent example has been the efforts of the Trust Solicitor to minimise reference to the damning Walklate investigations in the Trust Annual Report. Generally, concealment and suppression has been counter-productive and it should end.

Now, with open discussion of governance alternatives, we may be seeing the end of the obsessive secrecy that has characterised our Trust.

Today: Five Options
There is a serious consultation underway and it will determine the future of our palace. There are broadly five options to be considered for the governance of our Palace. Three of the five would see Haringey Council retain a controlling interest.

If any one of these three council-alternatives is chosen, nothing will have been learnt and we will have a cast-iron guarantee of continuing failure. No experienced Trustees (or major sponsors) will touch the place if the council stays in charge.

If there is to be even a chance of success, it is vital that tired municipal control is phased out, as fresh independent trustees are phased in. The effects of bringing in committed, interested experts should be reflected in improved trading performance and slowly but steadily, reliance on taxpayer support will reduce. AP must pay for itself in the long run. We cannot will the end without willing the means to that end.

Having been fortunate to have had a comprehensive tour, I can see that much rebuilding will be needed. One day, the large basement should be a hive of activity, possibly a subterranean market. I would prefer not to see a casino (whether or not it is linked to a hotel), but I think a hotel and even a large hotel will probably be needed, to help bring the foot-fall.

Unless there is external intervention from the Charity Commission, the Council itself as Trustee will have to make the brave decision to let go and to trust outsiders. This will be a massive change in mindset and it is by no means a forgone conclusion.

There are still those with reservations about the Stakeholder Workshop. But I say it is much better to make any kind of start than no start. And in my view, it was a very good start. Credit for the Workshop has to go to the AP trading company’s energetic managing director Rebecca Kane and to Chairman Pat Egan for agreeing to it. They have a big task ahead and deserve our constructive support.

With a building as big as Ally Pally and with so many facets, no single individual can get everything they want from it. But let us not make the best the enemy of the good. It would be unlawful to be purely commercial and it is unrealistic for it to be wholly charitable. It has to be a mixed development, in my view. We must seek a broad consensus that works for the majority of the owners, the public, the beneficiaries.

Anyone with new, novel or remarkable ideas about the future of our Trust and Palace should contact:

Amanda Sears
APTL Executive Assistant
Alexandra Palace
Alexandra Palace Way
Wood Green
London N22 7AY
Tel: 020 8365 4366
Fax: 020 8883 3999


Alexandra Palace: The 2007 Fireworks cash buckets scandal – Why the indifference of the Charity Commission?

THIS Saturday, 7 November, perhaps 40,000 people will again attend the annual Alexandra Palace fireworks display, the biggest in London. The public may again be asked to contribute by way of donation at the gates. Historically, collections from these evenings have been donated to charities and staffed by volunteers.

But in 2007, our Palace was run by a commercial operator under a licence granted by the Charity. At the gates in November 2007, many collectors demanded a "donation" for viewing the fireworks. When asked where they had come from, they said they were employed by the licensee to collect the money, and for the most part came from outside London. The unsealed buckets were labelled "donations for Alexandra Palace Charity". Some estimates put the amount collected that evening at in excess of £60,000, in cash.

Where did all that cash go?

Despite many questions being raised as to what happened to this money, it would appear that it never reached any charity, nor used directly for any charitable purpose.

The management of the Palace later refused to answer questions relating to how much had been collected, or where the money ended up. In a Board meeting, the previous (now-departed) general manager said that the cash was not accounted for "separately".

Which means that the cash was literally not accounted for.

Did these charitable donations in fact end up in the accounts of a company controlled by one of Britain's richest men?

Should the Charity Commission not be investigating these sort of matters, and examine the system where large amounts of cash donations are made? After pressure from members of the public, the Commission reluctantly began an enquiry into the Trustees' Licence-to-Firoka in 2008. Two case officers were appointed. But despite the evidence in September 2008 of the independent Walklate report, the Commission's own "enquiry" was wound-up prematurely by the end of 2008. Why?

The last 29 years of control by the local authority have been a dismal and expensive failure. It is hardly surprising because the Trustees are all Councillors and have neither the time nor commitment to make it work. Councillors come and go on a regular basis, often lasting no more than a year or two. It was always going to be a recipe for disaster, as it has proved to be.

The Commission has a policy that charities which are controlled by local authorities should be phased out and that the ownership and control of the assets should be maintained by properly constituted Boards of Trustees who have the necessary experience, qualifications and motivation to ensure that the charity is run in accordance with its charitable objectives.

Why is the Commission still sitting on its hands and not getting involved with the phasing out of the local authority control of Alexandra Palace? Should we not have new, independent Trustees on the Board?

Dame Suzi Leather became chair of the Charity Commission in August 2006 and is a political appointee of the current government.

One is bound to wonder whether the political connections between the many majority-group councillors, who have gone on to significant positions within politics, may be inhibiting full and proper investigation of the activities of Alexandra Palace. An enquiry that might expose the poor, and possibly corrupt, decision-making of political figures.

Alexandra Palace needs to be taken out of the political arena so that it can fulfil its true potential.