Wednesday, 17 March 2021 A meeting took place last Friday (12 March) morning between representatives of the Trustees and management of The Horsebridge Arts Centre and Mind in Bexley (Café Revival). The meeting was facilitated by an independent facilitator agreed by both parties. We would like to thank Councillor Chris Cornell for organising the facilitation.
That meeting was the first of a planned series of facilitated meetings. We were however informed on Monday (15 March) that Mind in Bexley have withdrawn from future such meetings.
The Board of Trustees of the Horsebridge Arts Centre continues to believe that the action taken – to lawfully exercise the termination of the Service Level Agreement signed by both parties – is in the best interests of both parties and, most importantly, of the many communities served by the Centre. Wholly without foundation Mind in Bexley continue to seek to position the Horsebridge as biased against those with mental health conditions and for the integrity of both organisations this is not a healthy basis to continue the relationship.
The Board of Trustees of the Horsebridge has always taken the view that while discussions have been ongoing, they should be allowed to do so in confidence and we have tried wherever possible to respect this position. Café Revival apparently took a different view and have undertaken an extensive publicity campaign. As a result, there has been an enormous amount of engagement on social media, which has in the view of the Trustees led to a series of misleading and unfair comments.
Commenting on Behalf of the Board of Trustees, Chair of the Horsebridge Arts Centre Zoe Cloke said:
“Over the last few weeks there have been statements and assumptions made in the press and via social media and it has been upsetting for staff, volunteers and participants to see our activities misunderstood and belittled. We would like to thank all the individuals and organisations that have reached out with their support - it has meant a lot to the small, dedicated team at the Centre.
“This dispute has never been about mental health but about healthy working relationships. We are proud to say that we are an arts centre first and foremost with clear charitable objectives. At the heart of our work is the aim to make the arts accessible to all. To use the arts to reach out and include those who are often left out or overlooked; the young person who doesn’t quite fit in at school, the isolated child with ASD or the lonely older person with rusty social skills. We want them to bring their creativity and concerns and make them part of work created by, and that speaks to our whole community. These are the people who we need to make sure are listened to, those who don’t or can’t get their voices heard.”
The purpose of the Horsebridge Arts Centre. The ability of the whole of society to express itself creatively and to have access to and celebrate culture in all its diverse forms is a priceless community asset. The Horsebridge was established by Canterbury City Council in 2003 with this core principle in mind. It is a core element of the Centre’s purpose to ensure that every single group within the richly diverse Whitstable community has an equal opportunity to contribute to and enjoy its varied activities and resources. As a Board of Trustees, we are conscious of our responsibility to ensure that this diversity is maintained and that no single interest is allowed to dominate.
Why this is not about mental health. Much has been made on social media and in the press suggesting that The Horsebridge Arts Centre is in some way anti-mental health and that the termination is happening because the café was being promoted for people with mental health issues. These suggestions are completely incorrect. The termination is not about mental health but unhealthy working relationships. Working relationships between the Horsebridge Arts Centre and Café Revival management have deteriorated over the 21 months that Revival has been at the Horsebridge. By the beginning of 2021 we had come to the conclusion that the stress under which our management team were having to work and the disruption to our focus and charitable objectives was reaching unacceptable levels.
We support the fantastic work of all the organisations in Whitstable providing mental health services. We really do. The people who work for and with us, visit us every day and take part in our projects throughout the year know that too. Unfortunately, we were never allowed to build a direct relationship with the Board of Trustees of Mind In Bexley to address concerns.
Why we have involved solicitors. In November 2020, we offered to arrange a meeting with representatives of the boards of both charities to discuss the issues with the relationship and expectations. Due to Covid-19 restrictions in place at the time, we agreed to postpone this meeting and also for it to be facilitated by a third party. When dates for this meeting were being finalised in January 2021, with no discussion, we were informed in an emailed letter from the Chair of Trustees for Mind in Bexley that no trustees would be available:
“we manage a multi-million-pound Charity with over 150 employees, numerous large projects, initiatives and direct services, we cannot possibly sustain involvement to this degree in elements of our delegated work. The structure of our organisation has been carefully developed to ensure an effective devolved power and management infrastructure. Any legal discussions or arrangements are also now dealt with directly by solicitors or outsourced HR if deemed necessary.”
Due to the stress under which our management team were having to work and the disruption to our focus and charitable objectives together with the difficulties we were having with the relationship manager appointed by Mind in Bexley, we felt we had no option but to work through solicitors as requested by the chair of Mind in Bexley.
Background to the relationship. During a chance discussion at a Wellness Week hosted at the Horsebridge in late March 2019, the CEO of Mind in Bexley and the Director of Horsebridge realised that there may be mutually beneficial opportunities for Revival café to become the café providers for the centre and future joint project prospects. After more discussions and meetings during April and May 2019, Mind in Bexley decided to take on running the café service and create a Café Revival offer at the Horsebridge in addition to their existing premises in Oxford Street.
We were told that because there was significant time left on the lease of the premises in Oxford Street, and tens of thousands of pounds had been spent refurbishing it, the existing Café Revival established in August 2017 would remain open. It was possible it might close later, but this was linked with an expansion of services elsewhere in East Kent and we were told that closure was not likely in the near future. At the Horsebridge, given the £5,000 we were advised Mind in Bexley intended to invest in the space, as part of the negotiations, we offered a six-week rent free period to cover the closure time and first two weeks of trading. This was on top of a low [below market] proposed rent that also included gas, water, electricity and internet. Both parties entered into discussions on the understanding the maximum guaranteed term would be three years. Those negotiations for the lease were ongoing and the lease was never completed. Alongside those lease negotiations, a Service Level Agreement (which is the subject of this dispute) was negotiated and entered into on 30 July 2019.
The café opened in July 2019 and, we understand, had an excellent summer of trading. Café Revival marketing made extensive use of the balcony glass, promoting all the services on offer and designed to draw visitors into the space. Matters were complicated as the autumn term of classes began and the Revival team had to get used to working in a busy centre where hirers of the spaces around the cafe had to be considered. The difficulties and compromises that came from not being in an independent building escalated significantly when Mind in Bexley decided to close the Oxford Street Revival in October 2019. It shut its doors in November 2019 and the Horsebridge space became the focus of operations.
Our success and survival as an arts centre relies on the income we generate from hiring our spaces to cover the significant costs of operating the building. These are not spaces we can give away for free or at substantial discounts and the other charities and fundraisers that have used our spaces for events and meetings over the years have always understood this. Unfortunately, it seems that this was not something that Mind in Bexley felt they should have to do. Their approach seemed to be that if a room wasn’t hired then Revival should be able to use it for free and if an event they wished to run fell outside the hours when the Centre was open they should not be expected to contribute even a nominal rate to the additional running costs we faced on lighting and heating the building. This was exacerbated when a Revival proposal for an extended hire of an additional room to expand their operation at well-below market rate was turned down by the Horsebridge. Whilst we integrate mental health and well-being into our daily work, we simply could not afford to support something that is not one of our primary charitable objectives. In March 2020, the CEO of Mind in Bexley sent us a document outlining fundamental changes required to the relationship between the two organisations. It was clear to the trustees of the Horsebridge that Mind in Bexley’s focus was no longer on a core hours café service and required the ability to close at short notice for events irrespective of the impact on other users of the Horsebridge.
Moving forward. Covid-19 and the restrictions and closures that it has caused have forced many organisations to rethink how they work and the Horsebridge Arts Centre is no different. We have to look at new ways to generate income from our spaces while providing engaging arts experiences for our district. During summer 2020 we were successful in receiving funding to transform one room into a creative digital hub that will house resources that are not financially possible for many in our community. It will enable our community to find new ways of working, learn new skills and grow the digital and creative economy in the area.
The Board of Trustees of the Horsebridge Arts Centre is proud of the superb management team that plays such a vital part in the running of the Centre. We are particularly impressed with the way that they have embraced the challenges of Covid and the new ways of working that will be with us long into the future. They are in the process of developing exciting new ideas that will ensure that the Centre remains a superb resource for all the various communities of Whitstable and we look forward to announcing these as they reach fruition. We will continue to support them in their work.