Ally Pally: real progress at last on the way ahead

Last month I attended the Stakeholder Workshop at Alexandra Palace with about 40 other people. At last this was a genuine attempt at consultation. Although things are moving slowly, after a long time in the wilderness, the Palace may finally be pointed in

Last month I attended the Stakeholder Workshop at Alexandra Palace with about 40 other people. At last this was a genuine attempt at consultation. Although things are moving slowly, after a long time in the wilderness, the Palace may finally be pointed in the right direction. At this point, it is worth reflecting on how far the fortunes of Alexandra Palace have come over the last 15 months, since a former slum landlord finally withdrew his interest.

In 1980, control of our Palace passed from the GLC to Haringey Council. The new trustee began with a big dowry (�8m) and good intentions. In the same year a devastating fire led to a then-huge insurance payment (�20m?). Haringey, with all that cash, then proceeded to lose all control over re-building costs. Haringey had a fool for a client while the Trust had a fool for a custodian.

Our Trust has been stewarded with the all the flair of parking wardens; our building was managed with the dynamism of an estate manager; and our People's Palace was marketed with all the entrepreneurship of a municipal swimming pool. Our council-run Trust has limped along for more than 20 years. The involvement of a single, skint council has been an unmitigated disaster.

The core problem has always been the Trustees' conflict of interest: between their duty to the Trust and their duty to the council. This affected every decision they made and every poor decision of the Board begat another. When there were two choices before the Trustees, they normally chose the wrong one. This record of failure extends over 29 years.

For more than a decade, the council-trustee has had a policy of the 'holistic' sale of all Alexandra Palace - in one go - to a property developer. This was a policy of despair but which would have swept much dirt under the carpet.

The policy of outright sale, for exclusively commercial use, was always unlawful. This assertion was not tested in court but what was tested was the proposition, that the public consultation organised by the Charity Commission, was unfair and unreasonable. A High Court judge agreed. The judge's quashing of the lease was the beginning of the end for the entire flog-it policy.

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Real consultation is happening now only because the sham consultation of the Charity Commission (insisted on by Cllr Charles Adje's Trust) was exposed in the High Court.

It would be helpful and would concentrate minds, if the council were to announce formally, that the flog-it policy is ended. There is still cynicism today, but there is surely no alternative to radical change.

The past focus of the Board has always been short-term. One of the enduring themes of AP governance is that we can't discuss openly and learn from a past mistake, because it would be embarrassing and might affect current operations.

Now, with open discussion of governance alternatives, we may be seeing the end of the obsessive secrecy.

There is now a serious consultation underway and it will determine the future of our palace. There are broadly five options to be considered. Three of them would see Haringey Council retain a controlling interest.

If any one of these three alternatives is chosen, nothing will have been learnt and we will have a cast-iron guarantee of continuing failure. No experienced Trustees (or major sponsors) will touch the place if the council stays in charge.

It is vital that tired municipal control is phased out, as fresh independent trustees are phased in. The effects of bringing in committed, interested experts should be reflected in improved trading performance and slowly but steadily, reliance on taxpayer support will reduce. AP must pay for itself in the long run.

Having been fortunate to have had a comprehensive tour, I can see that much rebuilding will be needed. One day, the large basement should be a hive of activity, possibly a subterranean market. I would prefer not to see a casino (whether or not it is linked to a hotel), but I think a hotel and even a large hotel will probably be needed, to help bring the foot-fall.

Unless there is external intervention from the Charity Commission, the council itself as Trustee will have to make the brave decision to let go and to trust outsiders. This will be a massive change in mindset and it is by no means a foregone conclusion.

There are still those with reservations about the Stakeholder Workshop. But I say it is much better to make any kind of start than no start. In my view it was a very good start. Credit for the Workshop has to go to the AP trading company's energetic managing director Rebecca Kane and to Chairman Pat Egan for agreeing to it. They have a big task and deserve support.

With a building as big as Ally Pally and with so many facets, no single individual can get everything they want. But let us not make the best the enemy of the good. It would be unlawful to be purely commercial and it is unrealistic for it to be wholly charitable. It has to be a mixed development. We must seek a broad consensus that works for the majority of the owners, the public, the beneficiaries.

Anyone with new, novel or remarkable ideas about the future of our Trust and Palace should contact: Amanda Sears, APTL Executive Assistant, Alexandra Palace, Alexandra Palace Way, Wood Green, N22 7AY (


Stapleton Hall Road, N4