Hitchin Town’s ongoing battle with its landlords over the Top Field ground appears to be mired in stalemate once more after the latest revelations around the Charity Commission enquiry over actions taken by the Cow Common Trust.
The club, which is celebrating 150 years of association football in the Hertfordshire market town, had urged the Charity Commission to investigate the trust and look at whether they had worked outside the spirit of the Charities Act. The Commission believed that the trustees had indeed breached the 2011 act, but was satisfied that they acted in good faith and were motivated by trying to secure the best future for the charity.
Now here’s the rub. In a letter to the Canaries’ secretary, Roy Izzard, who has been the mouthpiece of the campaign, the Commission said: “It is important to remember that the purposes of the charity are to provide recreational facilities for the benefit of the public in Hitchin. The Football Club itself is not charitable and does not further the charity’s purpose. Therefore, any lease to the Club must be on a commercial basis and the relationship between the Club and the charity is that of landlord and tenant. It is for the charity, as the land owner, to determine what is in the best interests of the charity regarding the use of the land.”
Hitchin claim, however, that the Cow Commoners should have had a “red book valuation” carried out on the land when proposing the land-swap that would have sent the club to an out-of-town site. A “red book valuation” is the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors’ professional standard that contains mandatory rules, best practice guidance and commentary for all members undertaking asset valuations.
The Cow Commoners responded: “It was explained to the Charity Commission that a ‘red book valuation’ was not possible for the proposed new site as the current value (subject to a lease to Celeriter Ltd) was very low and it was not in the best interest of The Trust to sell subject to that lease.”
The trustees described the offer by New Road for the Top Field site as “extraordinary” and that all risks on the deal sat with the developer. “The trust, after taking full legal advice, was of the view that the option agreement was hugely beneficial to the town of Hitchin and the objects of the trust. It became clear that the citizens of the town did not want the new facilities and so the proposal never reached the planning process.”
The media release from the Cow Commoners is the first significant communication issued by them during this entire campaign. It is also the most revealing.
Naturally, Hitchin Town are unhappy they didn’t get the result they sought. The club’s press release said: “Despite this damning conclusion the Charity Commission considers that there is no further regulatory action warranted because, effectively, no harm was done. In our opinion this is akin to a judge saying to an apprehended bank robber, ‘OK you didn’t take any money, no harm done, but please don’t do it again!’.”
The club’s owner, Andy Melvin, also hit back at the Cow Commoners press release: “Despite the Charities Commission telling the trustees they did indeed break the law, the trustees now release a statement claiming that they didn’t. It’s just incredible. You could not make this up. It’s a shame that the trustees could not have simply said we got it wrong and we are very sorry.”
There’s no doubt the whole affair has been shabbily handled from start to finish. Hitchin, at least, have a long lease, but now they need funds to develop their ground. A crowd-funding project is in full flow and has raised around £ 1,500. The appeal runs for another 37 days. The club is looking to raise £50,000 through this innovative programme.
The club is set to hold another public meeting to discuss the future of Top Field – August 12 7.30pm.