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 It includes letters sent to local papers, published & unpublished.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


• Ally Pally fireworks cancelled

THE November Fireworks display at Alexandra Palace is probably the biggest in north London. I enjoy it as do tens of thousands of others. The Ally Pally Trust Board meeting last week took the decision to suspend it, in order to save c.£100,000. This was the right and necessary decision, however the suspension does raise other aspects.

The trust is instead to write begging letters to see if funds for fireworks can come from somewhere else (other than trust funds/council tax). If some commercial sponsor is happy to see their cash go up in smoke in the name of publicity, then good luck to them. But it would be wrong for our Charity to seek funds from any kind of public purse when restraint in tax spending is the order of the day and front-line services are endangered.

To justify the difficult decision, reference was made to the fact that to continue the fireworks would cause a loss to the Charity.

It was pleasing to hear this status recognized.

Every north Londoner reading this is, in law, a beneficiary of the Alexandra Palace Charitable Trust (NB: not necessarily a resident of Haringey Borough).

Haringey Council-Trustee has run our Charity – as a semi-autonomous municipal department – since 1980. In truth, our Trust has not been in a financial position to host the fireworks for some years. Any cost overruns have been and would be added to the overall deficit held by the council.

The deficit – much of it bogus – is now more than £40,000,000: this is money that the Trustee (Haringey Council) claim that our Trust owes to Haringey Council (the Trustee). This is accountancy, but not as we know it. A full Council meeting last year decided not to discharge this 'debt' (?!).

The Board chaired by Pat Egan has acted in the interests of our Charity, but some of his Board colleagues have sought to score political points and somehow blame the Coalition government for this particular 'cut'. How little some of them know about the 30-year history of council-control and management of our heritage. When the newbies speak, believing our charity is a party-political extension of the council debating chamber, they demonstrate how unfit politicians are to be running a major Charitable Trust.

Conflict-of-interest underlies everything that the Trust Board does, but for once, the Trust Board has made a big decision exclusively in the interests of the Charity.

A nod to the charitable status may represent a genuine change of heart by the council. It may just be coincidence that, when a decision is made that is high-profile and likely to be unpopular with the public, it is linked to the word Charity.

But the decision also illustrates how the board/council is able to pick and choose when to invoke the 'charitable' status, depending on circumstances.

Charitable legal status is an inconvenient truth for Haringey. In the past, little mention was made of it. When the council tried to sell the whole building to their "preferred development partner" (the rapacious developer Firoka) for £1.5m., this status was largely ignored. The sale of our Charity’s main asset (Ally Pally) for purely commercial purposes, was most likely unlawful.

Charity was little mentioned in a classic example of conflict-of-interest, when the council first applied to itself for a gambling licence in our charity's premises, and then awarded itself a gambling premises licence at Alexandra Palace in April 2008.

Two years earlier the Trust Solicitor tried to square this circle in an attempt to get gambling into our Charity. He wrote to the Charity Commission: "Casino use does fall within the objects of the Charity as a recreational activity” (on this basis, another licensed activity, lap dancing, should also qualify. (Lap dancing could also be seen as recreational, if not wholly charitable). The background was, that the council had secretly promised permission for a casino to Firoka in the Lease and the lawyer's representation was an attempt to justify that clause. The Charity Commission went along with it but were later pole axed in the High Court over their farcical consultation.

As long as our Charity is controlled by conflicted local councillors, it will be impossible for the Trust Board to make good decisions consistently or even most of the time. The best way to deal with conflicts-of-interest is not to have them in the first place. The only viable, sustainable future for Ally Pally has to be governance by expert, undivided, independent Trustees.


Alexandra Palace Charitable Trust Board: drifting rudderless, on a tide of consultants

THE chronically dysfunctional Alexandra Palace Trust Board is in danger of squandering the goodwill it generated at the time of the Stakeholder workshop last October.

Then, the momentum was towards some form of long-overdue independence for governance (many aspects of existing governance arrangements were thoroughly criticised in the two Walklate Reports).

But in the next five months there has been little except drift. We hear the same lame mantra repeated "nothing is ruled in or out." Well, it is high time that the ultimate, independent board option was ruled in and continuing malign council-control ruled out!

Part of the drift can be explained by the fact the members of our Trust's Board – all politicians – are in election-mode. This by itself is an indictment of Charity Trustees and no way to run a railroad, let alone a major Charity of historical importance. The Chairman of the Statutory Advisory committee (David Liebeck) is angry at the time being wasted and recently remarked that it's long overdue that the politicians walked down the hill, away from AP and back to the Civic Centre!

And the time lost is not just since the Stakeholder Workshop. After the humiliating slap-down in 2007 by the High Court, it took two and half years before the policy of "holistic" sale for property development was finally formally abandoned.

That 15 year-old policy of flog-it-off, was the only strategy the Board ever came up with which enjoyed *continuity*. It was the only major strategy pursued with will and vigour.

But it also represented despair, a bankruptcy of ideas; was vandalism, an abrogation of responsibility and was an unmitigated disaster, burning millions of our money. And every last aspect of that sale attempt was consulted upon, heavily.

The recent drift also reflects abiding themes of this Board which are (a) a general inability to make coherent, effective decisions and (b) when a significant or strategic decision is made, it is often wrong spectacularly. Most notably, the decision to sell our Charity's asset (the Palace) to a former slum landlord.

Habitual delegation of responsibility

THE Board normally delegates its powers and functions to others; the Board would say that is practical and necessary. But it is also due to political fractures, a short-term outlook, a lack of ability, the infrequency of meetings and general inattention.

Powers and functions devolve to consultants or to council employees. In practice, this has meant our London landmark (which could be a prime tourist attraction) is run as a local municipal department. This has led to trouble, with palace management in the past operating in the shadows as a quasi-autonomous fiefdom, mainly for the benefit of its managers, their cronies and legions of consultants. The public, who pay for this charade, is often treated with contempt.

Due to lack of time and lack of on-board expertise, this Charity Trust Board is probably more dependent on external advisers and consultants than any other comparable Board. The many hangers-on often have an agenda separate from the officially stated one, and they are keen to maintain the status quo. The Board has been poorly advised in the past and there needs to be a clear-out of the hangers-on.

Alexandra Palace has been a gold-mine for lawyers and other consultants. During the sale-to-Firoka, much of the official flannel – and attempts to defend against criticism – was delegated to an expensive PR company (Lexington Communications, supposedly expert in crisis management).

The Board avoids addressing it own fundamental flaws and spends too much time considering half-baked ideas. In order to avoid responsibility and taking decisions, the board delegated studies about its own governance to an outside accounting firm. This is another indictment and demonstrates paralysis. Down the years, consultants have grown rich while the building deteriorates. And still the over-consulting goes on.

The Board's eagerness to delegate and its reluctance to take responsibility has been costly, confusing and corrosive.

Mixing up trading with governance

THE Board is slipping back into its well-known, old bad habits. It now intends to delegate not only much of its strategic role to its wholly-owned trading company, but even the Charitable Functions. And this with the blessing of the Charity Commission, itself heavily criticised by Justice Sir Jeremy Sullivan for its unlawful role in the attempt to sell our heritage.

The proper role for the trading company is managing trading operations and generating funds for our Charity. Mixing this up with governance is a recipe for more trouble.

Board members often make sense on an individual basis. But in the presence of Haringey Council bureaucrats, they tend to fall prey to the Jedi Mind Trick: "the palace is best kept under full council control". Trustee: "yes, the palace is best under council control". Jedi Master: "the council always knows best" Trustee: "yes, the council knows best!"

Most observers recognise that the fundamental conflict of interest between the roles of councillor and trustee is irreconcilable. For a while, everyone was repeating that governance needed reform. But nothing changes. This is a cast-iron guarantee of continuing strife.

The current Roadshow in the Borough's libraries is no substitute for reform of governance. Unless that nettle is grasped with both hands by the Board/Council, an opportunity will have been missed and we can expect more drift.

Some of the individual members of the trust board are well-meaning and well-intentioned. Collectively, they lack expertise, competence, professional qualifications and Charitable Trust experience. Most of all, they lack vision and leadership. It has been this way for 30 years and the results are plain to see: little except neglect and decay.

The public and beneficiaries deserve more for their money.


Official: Haringey Council stops flogging Alexandra Palace on eBay

THE COUNCIL has decided not to sell Alexandra Palace. I, and I'm sure many others, will welcome this decision. But it's worth pausing to reflect on its meaning. This volte face is not just a signal to would-be property-developers and it's not only something that's been called for, for a long time.

The writing has been on the wall for Haringey Council's sale policy since October 2007, when the High Court quashed the last sell-off attempt.

The council-controlled Board isn't exactly nimble in adjusting to changed circumstances. That it took the Trust Board two and a quarter years to come to this decision, is further evidence of the unsuitability of the current governance regime. After 15-odd years of the Flog-it policy, the climb-down shows how misguided was the previous politicians' policy. The Board has been dull, unwieldy and cumbersome. Anyone would think the local authority were running our Charity as a council department. Oh, hang on, they are!

The fitting failure for the "Flog-it" formula, followed the fiasco of Firoka's final flight. But that was in August 2008 – nearly 18 months ago.

The time taken to acknowledge reality also illustrates key features of the Council-Board: inertia, bureaucracy, unapologetic, unresponsiveness and an unreadyness to be seen to be wrong. During the Firoka-era and its aftermath, approximately one third of Trust Board time was spent hiding its most recent horrors; another third was spent rectifying older wrong decisions that had surfaced – and only one third of their time was focused on formulating fresh muck-ups.

The Trust (in truth, the council majority group) alludes to their inviolable responsibility for spending precious public money carefully. Such duty and dedication might be praiseworthy and even credible, were it not for the evidence: under 100%-pure council-control, the Trust has been a furnace taxpayer's-cash for 30 years and stoked by politicians. Is the view of the council that its their sacred right to burn our money?

How much has the previous, long-held Flog-it policy cost us? I would have thought the waste of our taxes runs into many millions and not just in direct costs.

By way of direct sale costs, there have been surveyors, a PR company, hoards of legal advisers (with questionable 'advice') and various sundry consultant hangers-on. The ill-judged Licence-to-Firoka alone cost a minimum of £1.5m and probably nearer £3m (council tax-payers actually subsidised a private company to this tune). If only the millions burned up in 'sale' expenses could have been spent more wisely and usefully. Independent trustees could surely do no worse than the council – and in all probability, do a great deal better!

All along, there has been the contentious vicious-circle of the self-reinforcing council-subsidy.

But perhaps the greatest cost of all of the Flog-it policy has been the opportunity cost and the chances for a better future – squandered for 15 and more years. It was a self-imposed planning blight.

The woeful neglect of our Charity's main asset (the building) has meant not only that the Trustee has been in Breach of Trust, but that the eventual bill for repairs will be bigger thanks to council carelessness. Normally, Trustees have an onerous responsibility. In a perversion of real Charity governance, Haringey indemnifies Trustees (i.e. itself) so that no individual Trustee bears personal liability for poor collective decisions. Individual responsibility disappears and we end up with a diffuse and largely meaningless collective accountability. Apparently no one is responsible for the millions in cash burnt up so far.

Towards the end of the Firoka episode, the council was practically begging one of Britain's richest men to buy our heritage for a rumoured £1.5m. Even though the reckless sale was eventually thwarted, the council still managed to press a huge subsidy into the hands of the company he controlled. It always surprised me that a Labour council would – in effect – try to give the crown jewels of our Borough to a former slum-landlord and developer-of-last-resort.

Haringey's 'preferred partner' (Firoka) – most carefully selected after exhaustive advertising and tendering – now sues the Trust/council (that's us, folks) for £6.2 million. The council record of disaster over our Charity's asset is long, deep and consistent. It began in the 1980s when they lost all control over rebuilding costs after the 1980 fire. The long-term Flog-it policy wasted yet more. If Haringey remain in charge, it is likely there will be further poor decisions.

It has been proved time and again that municipal control of our Charity represents chronic, systemic, failure. There may now be some attempts to interest developers in bits of the palace – attempts that are likely to fail. The council seems not to understand that no one wants to touch the place while the bureaucrats and politicians remain in control and the future is uncertain.

The notion of a multi-story car-park at the back has apparently been dropped by the Trustees. This half-baked scheme was an example of the piecemeal approach from a dilatory Board lacking a credible, coherent and continuous plan for our great building. The key issue facing the Board is root-and-branch governance reform and this ought to come before all else.

A positive interpretation for the abandonment of the flog-it policy, is that the council sees that as a necessary step to having independent trustees. One can only hope that if and when the council finally brings itself to 'admit one' independent Trustee, that it will not be under conditions that are either impossible, that no one would wish to take up or that any genuine independent trustee would soon tire of.

Meaningful governance – that could lead to AP being everything it could be – has to be more than being expected to read half-inch thick council officer reports and turning up for board meetings. Will the inertia continue or can the current chairman break the mould? There seems to be some reason to hope. Our palace is currently pointed in the right direction, but progress is slow.

Possibly no significant decisions on AP will be made before the next council election in May. Which in itself is yet another reason why the governance model (of transitory local politicians) is chronically flawed. New board members – who will be rotating politicians – will blame the old ones and so may continue the lack of continuity.

The best decisions the council could make now are: (1) to discharge the £40,000,000 of largely bogus 'debt' (2) to agree an annual grant for park maintenance [circa £750,000] (3) to phase-out council cash/control and (4) to phase-in a hand-over to a *largely* independent board of trustees, comprised of expert and experienced, committed and competent, enthusiastic men and women.