Robert White gives an overview of the Friends of Brogdale Special General Meeting
On 28 April at a Special Meeting of the Friends of Brogdale Horticultural Trust Friends were asked to support or reject an amendment to their Constitution that added the words ‘whilst pursued at Brogdale’.
The petitioners were in effect asking Friends to reaffirm what they and the Trust had previously voted for when the Constitution was established which was that Brogdale was the permanent location for the Collections.
Prior to the meeting the Trust had written to Friends saying ‘We ask you to show faith in us by voting against the motion’ thereby also turning the vote into one of confidence in the Trust.
Not only was the amendment carried by a majority but by a two-thirds majority of the Friends.
Background to Meeting
This meeting was a response to the Trust’s possible future plans to move the National Fruit Collections from their home at Brogdale, near Faversham, Kent to another site when bidding for the new Defra contract.
The amendment changes Clause 2 of the constitution to ‘these are the aims of the Friends of Brogdale whilst pursued at Brogdale’. Its intention was to reconfirm the Friends long term commitment to the National Fruit Collections at Brogdale. Friends travelled from far and wide, from North Yorkshire, Somerset and Belgium to attend the meeting, which perhaps gave some indication of the high level of concern about the news that the Trust might move the Collections from Brogdale.
Speakers in Favour of the Motion
The proposer, Robert White, and seconder, Dr. Joan Morgan, both the founder of the Friends and the Friends Honorary President, set out the reasons for voting in favour of the motion.
It was explained that the Collections had been at Brogdale for the past 50 years. The site was originally chosen by the Ministry of Agriculture, now Defra, for its suitability for growing a wide range of fruits. Nothing has changed in this respect. The Collections are thriving and Defra, who own the Collections, found no deficiencies with the site when they assessed it again in 1990 and 1999/2000.
The Trust was formed in 1990 to provide a secure home for the Collections at Brogdale when the Ministry closed its horticultural experimentation centre there. That same year, Friends became Friends of the Trust, because they wished to be Friends of the Collections and of Brogdale. The amendment thus reflected the long relationship between the Collections and Brogdale and the Friend’s main interests.
The Trust, however, appeared to be distancing itself from Brogdale. It has already left Brogdale and its Defra bid seems likely to propose moving the Collections from Brogdale.
Yet the position at Brogdale in many ways appears to be promising. The Brogdale landlord is making a £1 million investment in refurbishing the site, which should make it more attractive to visitors. The landlord has publicly stated that he is committed to providing a permanent home for the Collections at Brogdale. The land on which the Collections grow is on a long lease to Defra until 2016 and the landlord has offered to extend this up to 2050. So the site seems secure.
Friends have been the Trust’s most generous and loyal supporters. Despite this the Trust has been extremely reluctant to give Friends even the broadest outline of its plans. Is the Trust putting their own interests above those of the Collections and Friends in order to ensure the Trust’s continuity and why are the Trust not being more open and transparent?
Even before the new Defra contract was announced it seems that around 2005, maybe earlier, the Trust had been actively considering plans to move the Collections and had been investigating possible alternative sites. This seems to be confirmed by a former trustee who recently said:
I resigned as a trustee over two years ago on one simple issue, and that was the Trust’s idea that the National Collection should be moved from Brogdale to another location. As a supporter of the work at Brogdale and its aims and objectives, this idea was totally objectionable. Secondly, to move the Collection seemed a disgraceful waste of money.
Where is the incontrovertible case for moving the Collections from Brogdale?
Friends were asked to vote in favour of the motion.
Speakers Against the Motion
The primary speakers against the motion were the Chairman of Brogdale Horticultural Trust and another trustee. John Brady, the Trust’s Chairman, began by apologising for not communicating sufficiently with the Friends.
The Trust’s approach to the Defra contract bid really came down to two options. To stay at Brogale or to move from Brogdale. The ‘pros’ for staying at Brogdale were that they knew the site and the land was good. The ‘cons’ were that they had lost all their commercial activities which were important for raising revenues, the Collections were widely dispersed on the site and they now had no say in how the site developed. The ‘pros’ for moving from Brogdale were that they could get as good land and facilities elsewhere, and they could design the new collection to maximise the visitor experience. The ‘cons’ were that the move would be disruptive and costly.
The Trust was working hard on all the options and was in discussions with interested parties, but their main goal was the well being of the Collections and their public good. The Chairman of the Trust was glad of the opportunity to speak to the Friends but saddened by the motion and asked the Friends to vote against the motion.
Other Contributions and Observations
It was asserted that the Brogdale landlord had made it plain that the Trust were not wanted on site. This was challenged.
Firstly the Brogdale landlord was a strong supporter of the National Fruit Collections at Brogdale.
When the Trust had could no longer meet its mortgage commitments on the Brogdale site the landlord had bought the site and leased it back to the Trust on favourable terms. The landlord had for the past five years been trying to begin renovations at Brogdale, but progress had been blocked by the Trust. As Friends could see work on the £1 million investment on the Brogdale site had begun immediately the Trust vacated the site.
As late as January 2007 the Trust has been unable to provide the landlord with their future requirements. To address this uncertainty and to provide continuity for visitors to Brogale the landlord had set up a ‘Not-for-Profit’ Company and put in place an alternative restaurant/tea room facility for visitors to take effect from April.
Other speakers noted the general lack of information, but nevertheless thought that the problems did not seem insurmountable in achieving the outcome that many wished – that the Collections remain at Brogdale. They hoped that the Trust with the support of the Friends could work towards that objective.
One speaker thought that one should keep one’s options open to maintain flexibility. Putting the emphasis on the importance of the Brogdale site was inappropriate.
The voting, as noted above, was in favour of the motion.
In effect this means that the Friends only support the aims of the Trust while it maintains the Collections at Brogdale.
It remains to be seen what the Trust’s response will be to the amendment. To be effective a majority of Trustees must endorse the amendment to the Constitution. This seems unlikely given the letter sent out by the Trust asking Friends to vote against the motion and the fact that Trustees at the meeting spoke against the motion.
The 2006 Accounts of the Brogdale Horticultural Trust and its Subsidiary
Following the Special General Meeting the Annual General Meeting of the Friends took place and the financial position of the Trust and its subsidiary were noted.
For the year ended 28 February 2006 the Trust’s subsidiary, Brogdale Orchards Limited, had a deficit of shareholder funds of £(216,581) an increase in the deficit over 2005 of £(26,627).
For the year ended 28 February 2006 the Trust’s had a deficit of £(21,725) that left it with total reserves of £30,088. Included in the Trust’s net assets of £30,088 was £109,185 owed by Brogdale Orchards.
As the Chairman of the Trust conceded the Trust face a considerable financial challenge in deciding its future plans and strategy.