Urgent: Bristol Deaf Centre sale and closure imminent!

So it’s official re: the seriousness of the situation of the Bristol Deaf Centre, which faces imminent closure, as reported by the Evening Post just before Xmas. This follows an article by Charlie Swinbourne recently on the woes being faced by Bristol Deaf people – which is, to put it metaphorically, a large pair of scissors.  Cut, cut, cut. Cut the school, cut the Deaf Studies courses, cut the Deaf Centre.

Bristol Deaf people are now faced with the problem that unless a solution can be found within the next few weeks, there is a possibility that the Deaf Centre will become liable to Avon Pension Fund so as to meet a debt (£700k) that was not of local Deaf people’s making.

It is now known that as far back as Nov 2007 that there was a pension debt of £300k, and yet there was no pressure then on the Centre to sell to pay off that debt. More importantly, there was no known discussion with local Deaf people about what to do about such a growing debt in 2007 nor has there been up until now. [Click this link will open into a PDF Document.]

Ok, so there are obviously issues related to the past that come into play here; and these should be looked into.  And, also, let’s be honest: the pension issue is not one that only affects Deaf people’s Centre – there was a huge strike on November 30th about cuts in people’s pensions.

Yet as people were pointing out at the meeting, this is the Deaf Centre we are discussing: just take a look at what it has to offer Deaf, hard of hearing AND hearing people. For 127 years Deaf people have had a meeting place, to socialise together, to build networks with local and national communities, to teach sign language classes, to ensure the more vulnerable Deaf people had support and companionship. But, above all, where hearing parents of deaf children could take their young people and introduce them to the world of Deaf people, show them role models for their future, enable them to develop an identity.

On that note a personal detour. I myself, mainstreamed (like 90-odd percent of deaf children in the UK today), still vividly recall memories of attending the annual Deaf Centre Xmas parties, to which my mother took me. Vibrant, happy, full of fun, and Deaf adults who I never had an opportunity to see daily.

So whatever the situation, the politics, the pension, the council, the services, etc, this issue is about a community, a people, a culture, a way of life, a contribution to Bristol’s history – and the Centre itself is based in an area known for it’s local community diversity: Stokes Croft.

So the question is always: what is to be done to regenerate or save the centre? Now?

I’m heartened by the turn-out of numbers of people at recent EGMs (23rd September, 2nd November and 21st December) – one just 4 days before Xmas woah! All meetings were totally packed out, spilling out of the main hall, and the depth and extent of the passion in the air is a clear indication of just how much people value the Centre and want to see the continuation of a central meeting point, a hub, a club, a pub, call it what you want.

Question: can that passion be turned into something that will either save the Centre from closure or see the emergence of new beginnings?

So many people do care and want to act, do something, anything, to try and find a solution: be it through campaigns, meetings, become a trustee, or whatever. But at present, and let’s be honest, it appears the majority are spectators. They see fiery meetings, and are witnesses to a sparky debate. Not always a great spectacle, and a bit like seeing a car crash scene and finding yourself unable to look away.

Worse still is to be left feeling ‘oh what’s the point, the end is inevitable anyway’.

So, what’s next?

There is an AGM on February 8th. Motions need to be in to the AGM two weeks before that time.

Well, it’s certainly an option to sit around until then and wait for yet another fiery passionate meeting, allowing people to get up and have their say, but that is hardly the issue. The fact is that behind the scenes, plans are being put in place to sell the Centre and leave Bristol Deaf people either homeless or in a temporary place. Indefinitely, for all we know, for these situations leave one hard to know who to trust.

I have been active in the Interim Working Group to try and collect information about the situation the Centre finds itself in. [Please see below.] And I’m exhausted from it, especially as it has been almost Kafkaesque in nature – you know those situations where you reach a line, finally, only to find it has been moved forward or sideways…yet again.

The Interim Group suggested it would need a period of 6 or so months (from November 2011) to gather information but all the while it has been doing so, events have moved on.

We may well have reached a point where there is little more we can do in terms of gathering information.

[By the way, see below for an outline that shows what the Interim Working Group was set up for and what shady activities it has been up to…as you’ll see, nothing sinister. Just trying to get information together.]

Now let’s take a look at the Elim Housing offer to buy the building and reconvert the land into a block of flats, allowing the Deaf Centre to rent out the ground floor (at a cost) on a 125-year lease.  But does their offer really represent an adequate or fair ‘option’. How much is the Deaf Centre really worth? What would it sell for? Evaluations reported in the Evening Post are not independent of the sale to Elim Housing, which, by the way, has a church of the same name just round the corner from the Centre – I can’t work out if the two are linked are not…

Should a fresh, new group of trustees be set up to begin a re-building process? If so, who might they be? What might they do? What support would they get?  Would they simply become a ‘mopping up’ brigade of the type we saw after the August riots? And what exactly would they have to build with in terms of money, capital, and people?

I am not writing pretending that I have answers to the situation. But there is one thing I do feel quite strongly about, as I’m sure a lot of people do: The Deaf Centre belongs to Bristol Deaf people: it has that name for a reason. The current Centre was bought in 1973 on that basis and it is through no fault of the community that a debt of £700k has built up. It has been the home of the Bristol Deaf community, the meeting point, the focus of much that happens in the Bristol Deaf Community.

It would be completely unjust and unfair for all of that to be lost, or reduced, to pay a pension fund deficit that is not of Bristol Deaf people’s own making.

entry ends

Statement from Interim Working Group members for meeting of 21/12/11

On Wednesday 2nd November, an EGM of the Bristol Centre for Deaf People was held.

At the meeting, it was voted on and agreed an Interim Working Group would be set up to obtain information for the benefit of the Bristol Deaf Community. The information would be required to help Deaf people make a decision about the future of the Deaf Centre.

On Wednesday 16th November, the Interim Working Group held an open meeting at the Deaf Centre. We explained that we had held a meeting with a very experienced legal adviser and the adviser gave us a list of important information that was necessary before the Deaf community could make informed decisions about the future of the Centre.

We explained that our aim was to try to obtain 8 pieces of information and we will list it here and explain what has happened in response, in bold:

Firstly, we want to express our thanks to people who have agreed and been willing to meet us in the last few weeks

  1. the minutes of all meetings of trustees held during the calendar years 2008 to 2011;

These have not been provided

  1. the accounts to the year ended 31 March 2010 (as recited on the website of the Charity Commissioners);
  1. all draft accounts prepared in respect of any period after the year ended 31 March 2010;

These have been provided and are available – it is now up to the Board to distribute these to you.

  1. the “governing documents” referred to on the website of the Charity Commissioners, namely the “constitution adopted 24 January 1979 as amended 26 September 1984 and 5 December 1990” plus any documents effecting material changes subsequent to those documents;

These have not been provided 

  1. the original title deeds to the land and buildings at 16-18 Kings Square (now registered under title no. BL38229 – including but not limited to the conveyance dated 16 February 1973 referred to in the Charges Register) ;

These have not been provided, but we understand the land and buildings belongs entirely to the Bristol Centre for Deaf People

  1. any emails or other communications relating to the nature and extent of the pension deficit/liability;

Some information has been provided and the Board will be making this available at the meeting for 21/12/11 

  1. correspondence (including emails) between Bristol City Council and the trustees/centre relating to funding / its withdrawal; and

 These have not been provided

  1. written confirmation that no assets or functions have been transferred to the private company limited by guarantee incorporated on 5 August 2010 under company number 07336999 under the name “Centre for the Deaf Limited”.

No written information has been provided – however we are assured that no transfers have been made.

We have reached a point where we have done everything possible to try to obtain the above information for your benefit; it is up to the Board to provide the information to you and we have done our best and worked hard to try to get them to provide the necessary information.

IWG meetings and legal communication

November 21st – meeting between Elim Housing, Deaf Centre, Bristol City Council

November 23rd – meeting with legal advisor

November 30th – meeting with representative of Deaf Centre board

December 8th – meeting with representatives of Bristol City Council

December 12th – meeting with legal advisor

December 20th – meeting with staff at Deaf Centre

The legal adviser has written two strong letters requesting information from the Board

The IWG has communicated via email regularly with the legal advisor, Bristol City Council and a representative from the Board.

The IWG has met on a total of four occasions since November 16th

Ends

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5 comments

  1. How has this pension debt arisen? Is it former employees of the centre, and the need to meet ongoing debt?

    Were the premuims not paid? Is it final salary payments that need to be met of former staff? Something else? Personally I would like more information on this.

  2. Alison, far as we are aware it’s to meet all the things you mention: former employees who have yet to retire; salary payments of former staff (two of which are quite recent); the calculation is tsomething around £19,000 a year over a 30 year period (dependent on those people continuing to claim the pension); the liability of the ‘debt’ kicks in when the last staff member leaves, because then the Centre is no longer an employer.

    If you see the Avon Pension annual reports (all available online) you can see that the Deaf Centre has been paying additional thousands every year on top of it’s percentage; so presumably the premiums were being met but I am not entirely sure.

    Hope this helps

  3. So do we have some of the old SMT including CEO claiming pensions from this now deficit pot? i.e. there was negligent management, yet they still get paid their pensions even though there’s bad management? It is a bit like people promising themselves money, when there’s none there – then raiding the material building / what is not for them. Where were the trustees in all this?

    Deaf people are supposed to pick up the cost of this negligence – by the loss of a space and/or services?

  4. Alison, thanks again….a couple of things

    1. The Bristol Deaf Centre 2011 accounts were published on the Charity Commission website on Wednesday – at the end of those accounts is a copy of the Constitution the working group has been asking for: info here: http://www.charitycommission.gov.uk/Showcharity/RegisterOfCharities/CharityWithoutPartB.aspx?RegisteredCharityNumber=212783&SubsidiaryNumber=0

    I’m not too good with money (not my strong point!), but they are there for all to see, so anybody with an eye for figures can identify any matters of interest.

    2. I do wonder if it’s possible that if someone continues to be employed (even if only for a few hours a week) does that defer Avon Pension having liability? Or do they have to be claiming pension as well?

    By the way, one more thing: have to say BDA have been greatly supportive; publicly they stated they would we very willing to support local Bristol Deaf people with training, etc, if they wanted to become trustee’s, board members etc.

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