The chief executive of outdoor adventure charity Wide Horizons, which has announced its closure, has denied claims by Greenwich Council leader Danny Thorpe that his officers had been left unaware of the organisation’s financial situation until just days before a crunch meeting to decide its future.
Wide Horizons, based in Eltham, is to close on Tuesday with the loss of 75 jobs after Greenwich Council refused to lend it £200,000 on top of a long-standing existing loan. It runs nine outdoor centres, which cater for 45,000 children each year.
The charity, spun out of Greenwich and Lewisham councils in 2004, had been aiming to restructure to secure its future, and the two councils had refinanced a loan of £1.4 million earlier this year.
But accounts of the situation given by Thorpe and Wide Horizons boss Peter Rogers differ sharply – with Thorpe accusing the charity of mismanagement, and Rogers accusing the council of “time-wasting”.
Email to councillors
Thorpe told councillors in an email sent on Thursday evening: “Last year a new chief executive was appointed and he undertook to restructure the business. 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 which was intended to provide financial stability for the charity. A few months later the charity came back asking for an additional £400,000 as they were experiencing financial difficulty.
“The charity claimed to have pledges of £200,000 and asked RBG to provide the additional £200,000 to keep the charity running. Lewisham Council decided it could not agree to any additional funding.
“Officers of [Greenwich] council met various representatives of Wide Horizons in recent months and repeatedly asked for a detailed business plan.
“The full operating costs of the charity were only provided late on the evening of Friday 20 July. This effectively gave officers two days to assess the business plan, come up with recommendations and discuss options with cabinet members ahead of the Wide Horizons board meeting on Tuesday 24 July. With such an unrealistic deadline, officers worked over the weekend to make an initial assessment of the true costs of the operation.
“The assessment of our finance team was that the additional funding would only keep the charity afloat until the end of this year as the overheads in the business were much higher than expected. As a registered charity it is essential that the organisation always meets its surplus requirements. The business plan submitted and the operating costs it involved would have left Wide Horizons far short of that figure
“I have first-hand experience of the activities that our children enjoy at these centres and our over-riding concern has to be ensure that schools can continue to access high quality outdoor education. If we had had confidence in the business plan then we would have continued to support Wide horizons but it would have been unfair to our schools to continue to support a service that whose business plan is unsustainable. Similarly, it was not in the taxpayers best interests to provide any further financial assistance.”
Thorpe ended the mail: “We have a duty to spend our limited resources wisely and cannot continue to bail out a charity that clearly does not know how to manage its finances.
“Please feel free to disseminate this information. Parents and schools will no doubt be extremely concerned. But to suggest that the Council has forced the closure of this charity is a gross misrepresentation of the facts.”
Greenwich story ‘an excuse’
But Peter Rogers has told 853 that Greenwich Council knew all about Wide Horizons’ business plan all along.
He said: “The business plan was provided to Greenwich back in April and has not changed since then.
“On Thursday 19 July Greenwich requested further information, which we provided the following day, however this was merely an extrapolation of the information they had had since April as the business plan has not changed in this time; we have been working to that plan. This is an excuse for not having made the decision in the previous four months.”
Rogers says pledges from a number of outside bodies – including housing association L&Q, law firm Taylor Wessing and The Peter Harris Trust – together with the crowdfunding appeal would have made up the remaining £200,000 the charity needed.
Wide Horizons works with a number of schools across Greenwich and Lewisham boroughs, and was also working with Lewisham on its plans to revamp Beckenham Place Park. 853 understands the decision on the £1.4m loan – £700,000 each – involved switching it from being an interest-only loan to a repayment loan.
‘Charity may have needed more money by Christmas’
Both Greenwich and Lewisham also had trustees in place at Wide Horizons – Greenwich’s current trustee is Eltham North Labour councillor Linda Bird, who took over from Middle Park & Sutcliffe councillor Christine May earlier this year. Last year, another charity with a Greenwich councillor on its board – Greenwich Mind – also closed after financial difficulties, its services being absorbed by a neighbouring group.
Lewisham opted to have a former councillor – John Russell – as its representative. Russell also acted as chair of trustees.
Greenwich Council leader Danny Thorpe told 853: “Cllr May was a long standing trustee and was on the board when the council, together with Lewisham, agreed to underwrite a loan of £1.4 million at the end of last year.
When she became mayor, Cllr May stood down and the Council nominated Cllr Bird. Cllr Bird has not been invited to any meetings of the organisation as the next board meeting is in September.
“This is not about trustee oversight. The simple fact is that when the trust asked the councils to underwrite the loan it was on the clear understanding that Wide Horizons had developed a working business plan. No one expected the organisation to come back saying it had a £400,000 shortfall less than six months later.
“The full and detailed figures with a breakdown of the core costs and salaries for senior staff was only received after close of business on July 20th. The assessment of the council’s finance team is that those costs are so high that there is a high probability that the trust could have needed further financial support by Christmas.
“The council is absolutely committed to outdoor education but it would have been wrong to continue to back an organisation that is so unstable that it has had to request significant financial assistance twice in less than a year. That would not have been fair on our schools or on the trust and its employees.”
A Lewisham Council spokesperson told told 853: “The proposals put forward by Wide Horizons to restructure and refinance involved them leaving all the properties they lease from us. We recognised the changing circumstances and the need to allow them to exit our properties, in lieu of providing any additional funding, to support their proposals.
“If Wide Horizons does close down its operations, we will work with our schools to help them find alternative outdoor education provision and we will look for another organisation to run outdoor activities in Beckenham Place Park.”
Wide Horizons is still appealing for support at crowdfunder.co.uk/save-wide-horizons.
Updated at 7.10pm to include comments from Greenwich and Lewisham councils.
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