18 Jul St. Anne’s Project: The Team’s Perspective
Hussein Dickie provides a response to recent commentary along with the project team’s view on the project and ‘lessons learned’.
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By Hussein Dickie for the St. Anne’s team
A lot has been written and said about the St. Anne’s project recently, both here on the SESI website and elsewhere. Much of what has been said by others outside the project is, in our view, either inaccurate or unfair. In this article, we’d like to set the record straight about aspects of the project, to provide our own perspective and also respond to the recent article by Conrad Aldridge.
We seem to be well on the way to brushing the real facts about the project under the carpet rather quickly. That this was a good example of us working together harmoniously (as stated by Daphne Alexopoulou, the Subud Britain (SB) Chair) is simply not true. Yes, conversations were polite and respectful. Yet we didn’t work on the decision together. It was taken out of our hands. And finally, it was decided over the heads of the project team to abandon the project. East Sussex Council were informed of that decision the very next morning after the decision was made. The St Anne’s team was not formally told of the reasons for the decision made by SB in any official way, nor were we given a chance to comment on the reasons for opting out of the sale of the St. Anne's School and land.
We never felt supported by SB (with the exception of one or two trustees who also voted for the project). Rather than making up their minds, most trustees, in our view, took the less risky option:
DO NOTHING. It seemed that the Trustees, rather than supporting group endeavours, were glad to get rid of the project. The challenges to the main group of trustees appeared overwhelming and perhaps beyond the scope of their trusteeship. They engaged advisors, but there was clearly a bias not to support the project, because although all the queries flagged up by the advisors were addressed by the team, little notice was taken of the submitted supporting documents. It seemed also that the documents submitted by the St. Anne's Team at SB's request may not even have been read.
SB Hold The Group Wealth
It is fast becoming the view of several people, that SB should not get involved in enterprises. The St Anne’s experience appears to confirms this view, so the question then arises whether it makes sense for SB to hold the entire asset base of the country? If SB continues to refrain from using its assets for the expansion of Subud, then it is clear that SB should not be involved in enterprises or
the holding of all the wealth, which belongs to members of the UK Groups.
On the question of reactions to loss of the St. Anne's Project, It is true that some members of the team are very disappointed and so are the members of the group who supported the project, which was by far the majority . The Lewes Group is now engaging in a series of workshops with the aim of proposing a different structure for Subud Lewes (SL). We need to own our property again and be able to engage in projects that support the community we are in and the members. This can no longer be entrusted to SB's decision making functions as it is currently organised.
How to Work Together
The role of SB has to change. The only way we can work together is if SL and SB are equal partners. The hierarchic structure, with its ‘top down’ decision-making process has to be abandoned. If a large group like Lewes decides to put their property at risk for something worth pursuing, then SB should not be able to shut it down at whim. But, this requires SB not to be exposed to the enterprise endeavours of groups. Creating separate legal entities which hold the assets of specific groups may be a better solution for enterprising groups. For small groups, SB may well have a supporting function, as there is be no legal structure that fits all the needs of the different groups.
The advice and process Subud Britain now recommends for future groups seeking entrepreneurial assistance is not going to be workable because it ignores the facts mentioned above. A group which feels capable of determining its own future should be free to do so, at its own risk. It should not have to go through such agonising processes trying to win over an organisation that is unfit for purpose and appears not be involved in the enterprising activities of groups. Moreover, such an organisation as SB has developed into, should not be in charge of Group wealth, mainly because it paralyses the entire membership of Subud in the UK, and inevitably the growth of Subud,
Putting the Record Straight
I would now like to address some of the issues mentioned in the recent article by Conrad Aldridge for the purpose of correcting some inaccuracies and putting the record straight. Conrad is entitled to his view but his involvement with the project was only in the early stages as a trustee at the beginning of the negotiations.
1. … Some members in the Lewes Subud Group (the Team, whose composition changed several times over the life of the project)… This is not true: the core team was there from the start and didn’t change , what did change was the trustees and the chair of Subud Britain.
2. … Of course some other members of the Group were against the idea but the Team got the go-ahead from the Group’s committee – who had been keeping members' contributions (actually, Subud Britain’s money!) to spend on getting a new bigger hall for latihan…
This suggests that we didn’t have Group backing. We had regular meetings with the group at every step of the way; we included the group committee in the St Anne’s team so that the group got first-hand information; we had a regular newsletter to keep members informed; we introduced the ‘St Anne’s project clinic’ which would give members the opportunity to voice their opinions on a weekly basis. But the members that showed up always supported the project. Conrad’s sentence also suggests that the committee did something it didn’t have the right to by withholding funds that belong to SB for the purpose of supporting the project and not hearing the voices of those who oppose…….?? In fact, it was the Subud Lewes funds which paid for the SB Advisors' fees!
3. … Their determination caused a public enquiry which slowed down the whole affair and gave the Team time to re-vamp their proposals after discovering that Plan A was miles too expensive. Plan B, C and D emerged as critiques of each version were used to fill the holes ready for the next iteration of the Business Plan. The process went on for three years or more and the Team were given, and used, every opportunity to present their latest thinking to the Lewes Subud Group, Subud Britain’s National Council and Congresses too including the World Congress in Mexico.
This is simply not true. We designed Plan A and found that by the time we priced the project that the construction costs had increased by 30% between the year 2012 And 2014. This made the project too expensive. We also had used more exclusive materials. At that time, SB was very supportive and also suggested the sale of other properties to fund the project. There was never a plan B, C, or D!!! . However we decided at the time that we needed a clear briefing as to what the Trustees wanted to see in the business plan. As they got deeper into the project they wanted to see many other things in the business plan and we agreed on all the topics that need to be addressed in the next business plan. The next business plan addressed all the issues that SB had in their list and the project was feasible. With the help of some American Subud members we managed to fully fund the project and we were confident that the operational side could fully sustain the project. This was demonstrated very clearly and supported by evidence from other projects.
As far as having sufficient opportunities to meet the trustees goes, this was handled very poorly. We were invited to make presentations at trustee meetings twice in the last two years. The first time, we were put in a room to wait. We waited for one hour and then had 45 minutes to present the project. “SB has lots of issues to deal with; St Anne’s is only one of them!” we were told. We insisted on getting some time the following morning. We got an hour. The process that SB engaged in was divisive and resulted in an “us and them” situation. We delivered and they made the decisions. It was only in the last meeting that we all sat together and discussed the risks of the project. The team felt at that time that the project would get the go ahead. The following week (in a meeting where we were not present) the project was declined.
The process took a long time and it was clear that SB didn’t have the patience to go through with this. We were always told that we were ‘given’ enough time to do the project. Who, of the trustees or advisors, was capable of making a judgment on how long it takes to do such a project, I wonder? Other community projects in the area took up to 8 years to happen. We were dealing with Councils and the SB charity, and it is those two that permanently caused delays. The St Anne’s team had to live with this, but it is totally inappropriate to tell us that we had enough time for this project, and indeed shows the level of understanding and commitment that prevailed within SB.
4. … One of the worries for the Subud Trustees was the ability of proposed and speculative enterprise activity to service the anticipated debt.
The proposed activities were simply to let out spaces for community groups and others. We know how to do this because we are already doing this with the current Subud House. This activity alone, done professionally, was able to fund the costs of the project. No speculative businesses were set up to fund the project. Having said that, we all knew that things can happen and that there is always operational risk on a start-up project. We considered this very carefully in our plan. For the St Anne’s group and the members, the business was not too risky. And please let us also mention that we had a combined 120 years of business experience in the St Annes Team with our own successful businesses and projects. As promoters our opinions were unfortunately not trusted. Ironically, the 3 Trustees who voted for the Project were the only ones with business & political experience.
5. … Anyway, on Sunday 17 April 2016 the Trustees of Subud Britain (SB) at last took the decision not to support the St Anne's Project in Lewes having sought expert help from well qualified advisers. They issued a statement thanking the Team for all their work and giving half a dozen reasons along the lines described above for their decision.
This is not what happened. On the 17th April 2016, I got a phone call from Daphne, the Subud Britian Chair, at 10pm. She said that the project was being dropped. [Roger, who was our regional trustee had not called us. He said that he was too upset with the outcome and how it came about and resigned from being a Trustee. He was present at that trustee meeting.] Daphne wanted to discuss a press release with ESCC (East Sussex County Council). I asked Daphne to give us a chance to digest this and said that there was no need for a hurried decision, as the decision had come as a surprise given the outcome of the meeting the week before. I suggested speaking the next day. The next morning I found out that the ESCC had already been informed by SB over the top of our heads. The right way to do this would have been to get back to the team and discuss the issues in detail.
SB’s reasons for declining the St. Anne's Project are debatable. In the team’s view, it was really just a lack of understanding of the project which led to the decision. Many reasons were spoken about later, for example:
• There was not enough time to sell a property to fund St Anne’s project: This was simply not true, had SB been willing to sell they would have had 1.5 years to do that. That’s enough for any house sale in the UK
• Or, there were issues about income assumptions and staffing. Yes, I can understand that this is perceived risk for SB, but then they have never been in a situation where they needed to staff a project. On the other hand, our team had lots of experience with that, which again was not recognised. This was not about real risks, this was about perceived risks on SB’s behalf, which were high because they have never done anything like this before.
Ironically, our Bank funder Triodos Bank was willing to fund the project on the basis of the Business plan. Their risk level, it seems, was lower than that of SB, even though banks are risk averse and highly conservative.
We were very aware that the length of the lease and the liability of the wall posed financial risk. These two outcomes would have anyway been deal breakers, but we never concluded the talk with ESCC. SB just stated that these conditions were unacceptable and would therefore withdrew. We had actually meanwhile commissioned an engineer to reassess the wall and come up with a viable financial solution. The engineer made a suggestion which we asked him to price. But SB’s decline of the project preceded this so we could never pursue this matter. Having perhaps found a solution for the wall, we would have also perhaps got the concessions we need from the lease contract. 150 years was already agreeable at one stage and would have been enough for us to continue.
The project was terminated prematurely and this should not have been done without the consent of SL.
Following the decline of the St Anne's project, The Subud Lewes group held a meeting in which over 60 members attended, a governance group was set up made up of the following members with a balanced mix of views to facilitate a process with the wider group to analyse our current situation to assess whether a change in governance was required and if so what type of change would be necessary to further our group’s needs. This letter is signed by the members of the governance group,
Lorna Dawson Collings
Roger vd Matten