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‘Death spiral’ warning for Kentish Town City Farm

Workers thank community for support ahead of crunch talks

02 May, 2019 — By Tom Foot

CRUNCH talks are to be held in a bid to save Kentish Town City Farm, where staff jobs and services are on the line.

Staff will get the chance to face the board of trustees in a meeting with councillors and Holborn and St Pancras MP Keir Starmer amid a mounting community campaign to protect the Cressfield Close farm.

All staff have been told they are “at risk” of redundancy after three years of losses totalling £100,000. This week, however, the farm’s former boss has studied the most recently available accounts and said there was no real financial crisis – but that cutting staff could cause one.

Rachel Schwartz, a charity fundraising expert who was the farm’s chairwoman and director between 2014 and 2016, said: “I have looked at the accounts until March 2018 and the farm is on a firm financial footing.”

Ms Schwartz said there had been a “fundamental misunderstanding” by the board about how charity accounts work. Funding ring-fenced for capital projects may have been confused with “unrestricted reserves”, donations and grant money.

She said: “It looks as if they have conflated everything into one big lump. But every year since 2014, the farm’s reserves have been growing. And frankly, that is down to the staff. They are bringing in corporate days, the pony club, festivals, a health kick programme. There’s £90,000-£100,000 coming in from programmes that staff deliver. What we don’t want to create is what we sometimes call in the charity world a death spiral. By cutting staff, you cut your ability to make income. If you don’t deliver an environment programme, you’re not going to get funding for it. That’s what we are trying to avoid. That is why staff have said: We’ll take a pay cut. They are telling them they’ve lost control of the finances.”

She added: “The whole process should be called to a halt until we have some clean books we can look at. What we are saying is we are here to help. We’re saying to them: Let’s bring the community along with you. We’re not just screaming on Facebook.”

The board of trustees is under intense pressure to scrap its redundancy proposals after a massive public backlash, as revealed in our front page last week.

The number of jobs could be halved, while animals – including all the horses and ponies – face being moved out. Shirley the cow is also at risk. Campaigners have come up with an alternative financial package that includes staff taking a pay cut.

Mr Starmer, who has warned that the “vital asset” needs to be protected, will be at the meeting with councillors and two farm staff.

Farm manager Melanie Roberts said: “The depth of public support has brought about this mediation. They were thinking they’d just get rid of us, they didn’t expect any of this. Hopefully, we have made them think again and sort this out.”

She said the revised alternative plan had “reduced me to tears it was such a piece of beauty”.

A petition has raised more than 3,500 signatures. The public are in­vited to a May Day festival at the farm on Sunday.

The council – which has given £800,000 in grants to the farm in the past six years – is reviewing how it will support the farm after 2021.

The board has said: “It is with considerable regret that staff at Kentish Town City Farm have been placed at risk of redundancy”. The farm’s finances meant “significant savings must be found to ensure its future sustainability”.

Its statement added: “In the year to March 2017, expenditure exceeded income by £24,703 and in the year to March 2018 expenditure exceeded income by £46,503. While accounts to March 31, 2019, are being finalised it is likely that expenditure will exceed income by approximately £40,000. “Projected income for the current financial year indicates that without significant reduction in expenditure there will be a fourth year when the farm will operate a deficit.”

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