Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Challenging times for the K&A Canal Trust

A New Year Message from David Inight, Acting Chair of the Trust Council, and Mike Rodd
2010 has been a most difficult and challenging year for the Trust.
Financially the year has been a nightmare, as it has for most charities in the UK. On the one hand the national economic situation has impacted on many areas of the Trust’s activities, especially those directly relating to trading and sales figures. At the same time, in many directions, costs have risen – for example, those incurred in achieving the legally required operating certificates for the boats via the MCA.
On the other hand, and despite an unusually high number of submissions to award-making Trusts and businesses (normally a dependable source of targeted income), 2010 has been an absolute washout in this regard. Each few weeks have seen yet more rejections (or, at best, a holding response) to applications for support for projects such as bankside volunteering, an extensive membership recruitment campaign, and urgent appeals for repairs at Crofton and Devizes. This picture, however, is being repeated nationwide and many other charities are reporting the same experience. There is clearly a huge increase in the number of applications being submitted, whilst the grant-awarding bodies are being very careful not to overreach themselves.
All this has occurred just as warnings about potential cash-flow problems, made some five years ago, have also finally come home to roost. Early in 2010 it started to become evident that although the Trust’s accounts continue to show a healthy “reserve” of nearly £1/2 million, this figure effectively represents the value of the Trust’s boats, stock, property and equipment – critical assets, but not hard, immediately accessible cash. The situation had been predicted, but it was not until this year that the impact became evident in terms of a need to dip ever more deeply into a bank overdraft to get the Trust through the difficult low income-generating months of January to April. Work by Neil Lethby, David Lindop and Mike Rodd showed that if the situation was not addressed, we could face a position in March/April 2011 where we might not be able to meet our commitments without raising additional cash against our reserves. For a charity, such a situation is potentially dangerous, and urgent action by the Trustees was therefore needed.
It was clear to the Trustees that although the Trust’s expenditure had been held well below that planned for in the 2010 budget, the reduction in predicted income required immediate attention. This was handled by a major reduction in the cost of producing the Butty, the outsourcing of the three loss-making cafés, and some staff reductions. Whist this had an immediate effect, it became evident in November that additional action was required.
All this has been happening at the same time as the whole rationale for the very existence of the Trust has been at the forefront of the minds of the Trustees. As is now well known, moves to take BW out of direct government control and form it into a Charity received additional impetus when the new government came into power - the concept apparently fitting so well with their vision of the "Big Society". The Trust Council has always been concerned about these proposals; not only do they potentially threaten the very future funding of all our waterways, but they raise many crucial questions for the Trust and its own future: Would we have to compete with the new nation-wide charity, for funding as well as for volunteers? Also, if the new government decreased its funding for BW (as it now has), how would this impact on both the existing BW and the proposed new National Waterways Charity? Finally, therefore, how could we best assist in keeping our wonderful canal alive and well under these circumstances? It was clear that the Trust would have to get involved as deeply as possible in this debate, and thus the now well-publicised pilot K&A Waterways Board was established, led by the Trust.
At urgent meetings of the Trust Council and the Enterprise Board in November and December these matters dominated the discussions. With strong leadership by the Acting Chair and the incoming Vice-Chair of the Trust Council, the MD of Enterprise and the General Manager, it was recognised not only that the Trust needed to take exceptional action to handle the financial position, but also that the very role of the Trustees needed to be examined. Each and every Trustee would need to be totally committed to the regeneration and repositioning of the Trust. In this changing model, each individual Trustee would also be required to take the lead on a specific area of the Council’s activities. It was accepted that some existing Trustees, who already had massive local loads (leading their own Branches, for example), might not have additional time available to commit to the corporate affairs of the Trust, and would need to consider stepping aside as Trustees in order to concentrate on their local responsibilities. This is turn made it imperative for new Trustees to be recruited as a matter of the highest priority.
Time has not been on our side – the BW situation suddenly escalated when the 2020 programme became the 2012 programme: the new BW Charity is now in line to be in place by Easter next year! Additionally, with the economic situation outlined earlier, we had to get the cash-flow position under immediate control – if the Trustees could not do that, the Charity Commission would need to be informed.
In light of all this, the Trust’s General Manager felt that – having been elected to Chair the pilot Waterways Board, as well as having established many external contacts and leading on relationships locally with BW – he would be better able serve the Trust as a volunteer, free from daily management duties. He also considered that the point had been reached at which much of his routine work could be taken over by one of his colleagues, whose salary would then continue to be subsidised for another year or so by the original grant awarded by the then Kennet District Council to create a managerial position. Given the expanded roles and responsibilities of the Trustees, however, this new role of General Secretary could be focused more on day-to-day tasks of managing the staff, overseeing Trust administration, and supporting the Trustees in their new dedicated lead roles.
The past three months have thus seen much action. Some Trustees have decided to concentrate on their local Branch commitments, while others have re-committed themselves to take direct responsibility for specific areas of activity, many of which had previously largely landed in the lap of either the Chair or the General Manager. After a careful search, potential Trustees were approached, and two, Pauline King and Suzanne Gaia, have already now taken up their positions on the Council, with others to follow.
Financially, the accounts for the end of the year are now looking much healthier, with Enterprise showing a real surplus of close on £30,000 – its best performance in some four years. The boats have done well, and even the new baby, the leased Kenavon Venture, has broken even in its very first year. The outsourced cafés are all starting to generate income for the Trust, instead of continuing to haemorrhage funds out. The Café at Crofton, still staffed by volunteers under the watchful eye of a Café Manager, has done exceptionally well, and visitor numbers at Crofton, Claverton and Devizes have been excellent. The savings made through having voluntary editors for The Butty has also been most significant, as has their success in increasing the advertising revenue. Finally, the departure of the General Manager has also decreased the overall costs.
Nevertheless, the Trust accounts are still of concern. 2011 will be a really tough time and many changes will still be required to ensure we are fit for purpose in a completely new environment. Following the staff restructuring described above, however, no further staff reductions are anticipated. This is the time for everyone – staff and members – to join the Trustees and Branch Chairs to ensure we are able to meet our prime reason for existing – to look after our unique and precious waterway.

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