Whose Community-Fund is it?

In the last few weeks, there has been a flurry of applications to the Draycott Community ‘Solar’ Fund. There have been some very interesting ideas, from a range of groups and individuals from our district – DCAT asked for money for upkeep of the village planters, another group asked for money for flower bulbs for a community display etc -, each project asking for a couple of hundred pounds or so.
Then suddenly it was realised that, over the last year, just one organisation alone has been getting thousands of pounds from the fund… in fact, much more than all the rest combined…

Checking over the paperwork, it turns out, over the last few months, that Draycott Council, which has the responsibility of administering the fund in trust for the use of the community, has itself in fact been dipping into it – and has awarded itself over £4000, which amounts to two years worth of the annual income of the fund! This struck some of us as fairly egregious…

Solar Array Fund

The Draycott Community Solar Fund was set up in 2016 by the ‘Lower Newton Farm Solar Array’ firm as a charitable gesture to the surrounding district. Through the fund, the business was passing on some of its profits to the community – as a kind of thank-you to the local people. The idea behind the fund was to specifically help local projects (ones that would ‘benefit the community’).

Lower Newton solar panels
Lower Newton solar farm, seen from Cresswell

Instead of administering it itself though, the firm arranged for around £2000 a year to be transferred to Draycott Council – and it asked Draycott Council to take the responsibility, in trust, for handing out this cash.
Over the years, the annual Community Fund papers reveal that the fund has helped the Church Hall Committee, the Cresswell Community Group, the Draycott Planters Project, the Children’s Ju-Jitsu Centre in Cresswell, the ‘Gaming Potion’ children’s play sessions, the St Margaret’s Bell-Ringers, the local First Responders, and more. The largest amount given out to any one group was £500 and no group has ever had more than one award.

Draycott Church hall interior
Draycott Church Hall’s new curtains were paid for by the Community Fund

The process was straightforward – filling in a simple application form, going through a basic interview with councillors (discussing the merits and potential difficulties of the project, and the possibilities of raising other, matching funding) and later submitting a short report on how it went. Then, last year, things seemed to change.

Late in 2019, the village council found it had under-estimated the cost of installing the speed-signs for its traffic management project.
So, one councillor said, why not take the outstanding amount out of the Community Fund? The idea was nodded through; no councillor opposed the idea. We’ve seen no formal application form, and observed no full discussion on the merits of the application in the records. The fund’s current balance sheet shows that this amount came to around £3000.
(In the end, none of the council’s own money was spent on this speed-signs project).

Since then, the council has used the Community Fund more than once to defray some of its costs – it has earmarked money from the fund for printing its own newsletter (!) and for the cost of a new council noticeboard, the total of which will amount to over £1000.
Application forms should have been submitted, and proper discussions held for these applications – so we have asked for more information to see if these happened, but got no info yet.

Whose money is it anyway?

The councillors are not doing anything ‘wrong’, as such. The wording of the original gift from the Solar Array business is simply that the community must benefit from it, and that the councillors must dispense the money according to their own policies.

When challenged, one councillor said, “our projects DO benefit the community”. (We found that a slightly feeble justification as everything the council does should ‘benefit the community’, even down to stuff like purchases of printer-ink, though we hope they don’t want to take the fund’s cash for that too…).
Another justification that a councillor put forward is that ‘no-one is using the fund’. It is true that, after some busy years, there was a quiet period for the fund in 2020 – but that seems slim justification.
Is the council desperately poor? No. It is funded by the council tax to the tune of £9000 a year, of which £5000 a year is income which it can freely dispose of. In fact the councillors are currently sitting on a very healthy bank balance of almost £20,000.

Draycott VAS speed sign
Draycott speed sign – paid for using Solar Fund money

So, surely, isn’t what the councillors are doing flying in the face of the spirit of a Community-Fund?
The accounts of the fund show that, down the years, the council has awarded local community-based groups around £2500, but has awarded itself the lion’s share of the fund, some £4000.

What to do?

Well, what can one do? One would hope the councillors would be embarrassed, but – unless residents email the council to express their dissatisfaction – the councillors will probably just carry on dipping into the fund for the council’s own projects.
Our big hope is that the council will simply realise that the fund is best spent by community groups, not by itself.

We would hope too that the council now gives the Solar Fund a proper, pro-active publicity campaign (through the local newspapers, and direct publicity mail to local grass-roots organisations) so that more local people realise just what monies are available to them, and then use it.
Also, for the sake of transparency, we would hope that, in future, we could see on the council’s website: the full criteria for awards; and each application form as soon as it is submitted.

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