Updated story: Troubled children’s charity Wide Horizons has announced its closure, accusing Greenwich Council on going back on a pledge to lend it £200,000 to allow it to continue as well as “four months of timewasting” on the issue.
The Eltham-based organisation, which operates in both Greenwich and Lewisham boroughs, had already launched a £100,000 funding appeal to help it restructure after school cuts led to a drop in demand for its outdoor centres.
But it now says it will close next week, with the loss of 75 jobs, after saying the council went back on a pledge to lend it £200,000.
Greenwich Council leader Danny Thorpe has hit back, saying claims of a “last minute U-turn are just wrong” and that the charity “clearly does not know how to manage its finances”.
Chief executive Peter Kent said: “It’s tragic really. The council only took the decision yesterday not to provide the loan, having known for four months that we would have to close without it.
“We are bitterly disappointed as they had implied right up until yesterday that they would support us. As it stands, unless we can find £200k in the next week to match the £200k that has already been pledged by our other supporters we will have to close.
“It has been confirmed that the decision was made without the consultation of the Cabinet or the full council. It is somewhat shocking, given the fantastic community support received, as well as the fact that over 70% of Greenwich schools rely on Wide Horizons to provide their outdoor education.
“Yet, coincidentally, this decision has been made once all schools have broken up for the summer holidays. This results in Greenwich Council avoiding any backlash from schools, parents and pupils who will now miss out on life-changing trips already booked for the next school year.”
The charity will cease operations on Tuesday 31 July if the £200,000 shortfall cannot be made up, with all nine of its outdoor centres closing.
Wide Horizons chair of trustees John Russell – a former Lewisham councillor – said: “This is an amazingly short-sighted decision by the council.
“It will almost certainly cost them more than £200k to secure and maintain the properties that Wide Horizons currently lease from Greenwich but that will be left redundant and will subsequently need new people to run them.
“Wide Horizons has provided a fantastic service to the local community for many years and it is clear Greenwich Council do not realise how much it is valued, used and relied upon.
“We have requested the council to rethink their decision and have informed them that we would be open to working with them to find a better solution. We would welcome any opportunities to discuss how we can preserve our services before they close at the end of the month.”
Greenwich leader ‘bitterly disappointed’
But Greenwich Council leader Danny Thorpe has come out fighting. In a statement released on Thursday evening, he said: “Just before the turn of the year Greenwich and Lewisham Councils underwrote a £1.4m loan to Wide Horizons based upon a new business model, but only a few months later the charity came back asking for an additional £400,000 as they were experiencing financial difficulty.
“Our assessment was that the additional funding would only keep the charity afloat until the end of this year, so we made it clear then that we could not provide more funding unless they developed a more sustainable business model. To claim we made a ‘last minute u-turn’ is just plain wrong.
“Despite numerous requests, the charity submitted their proposals to us less than 48 working hours before a deal needed to be reached. Unfortunately it was clear that the proposed business model was not sustainable and that, with significant levels of overheads, it was not in the taxpayers’ best interests to provide any further financial assistance.
“The organisation, and its staff in particular, have provided a valuable service for children in the borough, so we are bitterly disappointed with this outcome. We will make sure the sites we own are protected and will explore options for them to continue to be used to provide outdoor education opportunities.
“We will liaise with schools in September and work towards a long-term sustainable solution. However, we have to spend our limited resources wisely and cannot continue to bail out a charity that clearly does not know how to manage its finances.”
Spun out of Greenwich and Lewisham councils
The charity, which can date its heritage back to the founding of a outdoor centre in Swanage, Dorset in 1929, was spun out of Greenwich and Lewisham councils in 2004 after they inherited the centres from the old Inner London Education Authority.
While many of the thousands of children that use its services come from its home boroughs of Greenwich and Lewisham, it now operates across London and beyond.
Under its restructuring plan, it has planned to hand its Bexley Road Environment Centre back to Greenwich Council, but would continue to operate day visits at its Woodland Centre in Shooters Hill and the Tump 53 Nature Reserve in Thamesmead. It also planned to continue outreach services in locations such as Beckenham Place Park, Crystal Palace Park and green spaces within school grounds.
At last week’s council meeting, Eltham South Conservative councillor Pat Greenwell raised the issue of the charity’s future, the £17,000 deposits it held from the borough’s schools, and its plans to hand back the lease on the Bexley Road centre.
At the time, leader Danny Thorpe said: “I don’t know what kind of crystal ball you’re gazing into, but no leases have been returned. Clearly we are in ongoing discussions with Wide Horizons about the situation they find themselves in, and clearly, there are deposits that have been paid that are at risk. That is absolutely true.
“But we are absolutely clear that Wide Horizons have to find solutions to the crisis they find themselves in. We are talking to them about a range of options but I won’t say any more than that because clearly this is a very serious situation.” (See the exchange here.)
The charity is still appealing for support at crowdfunder.co.uk/save-wide-horizons.
Story updated and revised at 5.50pm to incorporate Greenwich Council comment.
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