Opponents ‘trying to bring down BCLC’

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TWO directors of the Bute Community Land Company have accused the people behind calls for an extraordinary general meeting of the organisation of “a dedicated campaign to bring us down”.

Christine McArthur and Sara Goss have told The Buteman this week that they believe the request for an EGM is the tactic of a small group of opponents determined to launch a concentrated attack on BCLC’s board of directors.

Twenty-seven BCLC members have put their names to a request for an EGM “to discuss and agree together the scope and activities of the company”, and have asked the BCLC board to produce reports on the priorities of the company and the financial risk attached to its current and proposed projects.

That meeting will take place at Rothesay Joint Campus on Saturday, May 21 - exactly a month after the request for an EGM was made, and nine weeks after concerns were raised at the company’s first annual general meeting over the priorities of the board and levels of communication with ordinary members.

Mrs Goss said the board had listened to those concerns, and told us she believed it was unfair for the 27 signatories to give the directors less than a month to put together the requested information.

“It’s just ridiculous,” she said. “You can’t go round nearly three hundred people to try and talk about how they feel about the perception and direction of the company in less than a month.

“We are up for an EGM – we have to be. But this seems to me to be a concerted and strategic attack on the directors.

“To do what? I don’t know. That’s not being part of a community. If you want to find out what’s going on with somebody, phone them up.

“This is a company that is young and growing. We’re doing our damnedest to get it right, and we’re hoping to have the support of the community in getting it right. But this just feels like a dedicated campaign to bring us down.”

BCLC, which was formed in the late summer of 2009 as a vehicle for the community purchase of the Rhubodach forest at the north end of Bute, now employs a forest manager, a shop manager for its Brandish Bute premises in East Princes Street and a marketing manager, and is also the ‘anchor organisation’ for a Bute local development officer appointed by Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

A community ballot in February 2010 returned a 93 per cent vote in favour of buying the forest, although problems with funding meant the purchase was not completed until last July - and on a much smaller scale than originally planned.

The company now has two subsidiaries - Bute Forest Ltd, formed to oversee the work in the forest, and Brandish Bute Ltd, set up to market and sell food, arts and crafts produced on the island.

The company has also commissioned feasibility studies into the possibility of refurbishing the Royal Hotel, redeveloping the Guildford Square gap site in the centre of Rothesay and setting up an artisan cheese-making operation on the island, while BCLC’s directors have also recently published a blueprint for the economic development of the island, called Ambitious For Bute, and a strategic plan for the company itself.

Those activities have led some members to suggest the company should concentrate on making its core business of managing the forest and running the Brandish Bute shop a success before turning its gaze to other projects.

“The feasibility studies were very early studies on huge projects that could take years,” Mrs Goss continued.

“We are not purporting to say we will go out and do absolutely everything.

“Yes, there is always the risk of volunteer fatigue. But most of the fatigue comes from fighting the negativity coming from a couple of sources who are constantly attacking us.”

“Some of the negativity we have experienced has been appalling,” Mrs McArthur added.

“It’s very upsetting. They know what they’re doing - they’re not giving us any time to do the things we need to do. Quite a few of the 27 people on that list have never been to any meetings at all.”

BCLC chairman John McGhee told us: “We have been doing our best in the interests of the community, we believe we have responded to the legitimate concerns that have been raised, we are consulting with the community as widely as we can and being as transparent as we can.

“Having done all that, we are genuinely puzzled as to why we are being bounced into an EGM. All the points raised have a ready answer, and an answer we have given on countless occasions.

“It is certainly an unwelcome distraction when our time and energy needs to be spent on the forest and in the shop.”

* Below, Peter McDonald and Charles Soane tell us why they resigned as a founding director and company secretary respectively of BCLC, and speak of their concerns about the company’s direction, while current director Sara Goss sets out the present board’s activities, priorities and expertise.

* * * * *

ALTHOUGH he resigned from the board of Bute Community Land Company in January, Peter McDonald says he still believes the Rhubodach forest is “a fantastic opportunity for the island”.

Mr McDonald, whose day job is as the new business director for local housing association Fyne Homes, was one of the founding members of BCLC when it was established in the late summer of 2009. And he has told The Buteman that the country’s financial situation convinced him that the company needed to be very careful about how it proceeded.

“Since May 2010, we have had a UK government that has a particular approach to the economy,” Mr McDonald told us.

“The economic landscape is very different now. We’ve already had a bumpy ride with one funder who withdrew financial support for the forest buy-out, and as the wider picture with funders changed I began to think ‘we’ve got to be very careful’.

“We had an event at the campus which was attended by James Hilder of the Mull and Iona Community Trust (MICT), who was very enthusiastic about what we had done but had a very clear message that the important thing was sustainability. ‘Don’t run before you can walk’, was his message, and I think that’s what we ended up doing.”

When Mr McDonald resigned, he told BCLC’s remaining directors that his reason for doing so was the company’s capacity to deal with the financial risks of its projects – particularly the cost of building in the forest itself.

He also told us he believed it was wrong to equate criticism of the board with negativity.

“I think that is somewhat unreasonable - if you are a community company you have to stand up and listen to people.

“I’m ambitious for Bute, but your ambition has got to be achievable.

“I don’t think the current directors’ ambition is achievable in the present financial climate. But I don’t like this idea that anyone who criticises is negative, and doesn’t have any ambition for the place.

“I still believe the forest is a fantastic opportunity for Bute, so let’s go and do something with it. Managing that sensitive landscape is not going to be easy, so let’s put everything else on hold until we have made that work.”

Another senior figure within BCLC was local accountant Charles Soane, who resigned on February 13 after a similar spell of unease at the company’s ability to tackle its list of projects.

“I don’t think there’s enough interest in the forest,” Mr Soane told us. “It’s been relegated to a subsidiary. The impression I have is that three directors have been told ‘you get on with that, the main board will move on’.

“The fundamental problem for me is that BCLC is a charity, formed for a particular reason, and it has to remain viable – you cannot run a charity as a loss-making exercise.

“We have paid half a million pounds for this land, and we should ensure something is done to make it sustainable.”

Mr Soane also told us he doubted financial projections for the Brandish Bute shop were viable, and income from a website might not change that.

“It’s one thing to say it’s great to get a community working together and have a shop which might have worked without paid employees,” he said.

“Alternatively you can say there’s a lot of local suppliers who have their goods available in other shops, and maybe launch a website with a directory to show people where they can buy these products online. But they haven’t done that.”

* * * * *

DESPITE the concerns raised by the 27 people who signed a letter asking Bute Community Land Company to hold an EGM, company director Sara Goss says she is absolutely certain the road they are taking is the right one, both for the company and the community.

They also say they believe the concerns raised at the company’s AGM in March have been considered and addressed and that it is time to move on and let the board pursue its goal of regenerating Bute through its twin projects of the Rhubodach forest and Brandish Bute.

“The most important thing, we felt, was the difference in perception between what people thought and what we were actually doing,” Mrs Goss said. “John [McGhee] always said ‘everything we are doing, we will tell you about’, but people seemed to be focussed on what they believed were the problems.”

Two ‘meet the directors’ events have been held since that AGM, on March 29 and April 14 - the first attended by six BCLC members, the second by only two, though more are planned for the coming weeks.

One suggestion the directors say they have taken on board is for BCLC to hold two EGMs every year, as a matter of course, to tell members about the company’s activities.

They have also hit out at fears the boards of both BCLC and its subsidiaries, Bute Forest Ltd and Brandish Bute Ltd, are lacking in experience following the resignation of several key figures in the course of the last 12 months.

“Richard Matts, one of the Bute Forest directors, is a forester himself – he actually owns two forests in England,” Mrs Goss-Melvin continued.

“Jim Mitchell and Lyn Henshelwood have years of business experience.

“We’ve got to run as a hard-nosed business. That’s how things like this are successful. Jim, Lyn and Richard are all businesspeople with the expertise and knowledge a company like this can really benefit from.”

BCLC’s AGM in March also heard that the Brandish Bute shop, in East Princes Street in Rothesay, has yet to turn a profit, leading to concerns about the viability of the project in the long term – while the shortage of public funding in the current financial climate is another reason some believe the company should concentrate on making its core activities work.

“As far as the shop’s figures are concerned,” Mrs Goss-Melvin said, “we have reached an ambitious turnover target of £26,000 in our first year, and our website will be launched in June, in time to support the trade fairs [marketing manager] Charles Dixon-Spain will be attending. I think there will be quite an upsurge in interest and demand when that happens.

“Yes, running companies costs money. I agree that you have to be sustainable without funding in the long run, and I know the funding landscape is a difficult one, but I think people and funders really believe in what we are doing.

“The community doesn’t want us to fail. And I absolutely agree with having the members on board to agree the strategic direction of the company. It can’t be a community company if the community doesn’t support you. It absolutely is going to happen. It’s just going to take a bit more than three weeks to do.

“We’re not going to pretend we are experts, but I think we are doing a damned good job. It can be a pretty thankless task at times, but we are heading in the right direction, and I think everything is going quite well.”