An Open Letter

10 March 2015

In response to your questions regarding LoveMilton posted on the MiltonTalks Facebook Page:

It is Christopher Rowe here, the chair of LoveMilton, and one of the founding directors.  I'm also the parish minister for Milton.  I've lived and worked in Milton now for just over 7 years and I bear responsibility for lots of the issues you've raised, as I've been involved in all of them from the beginning

I want to try and answer your questions as fully as I can which means this answer will be long.  Please bear with me, and please if you are passing on the answers to others, will you use all of what I say and not just highlight snippets, because I am taking the time in a busy and tiring schedule to give as full an answer to you as I can.  I want to try and answer your specific questions and I'd also like to try and address what I think are the feelings and the things that really matter to you that are behind it all, which are just as important to me.  I may be wrong, but I get a sense in your questions that you and others have feelings of annoyance, anger even, perhaps of frustration and confusion, feelings of impatience and powerlessness, maybe even of despair.  I'm guessing that behind those feelings, what really matters to you is that you get some clarity and understanding and meaning of what has happened and why.  That it matters to you to see positive change and money well spent. That it matters to you that you see a more just society, and that you want to contribute to other people's welfare and quality of life, and that you are affirmed and valued for who you are.

Only you, and by implication, those who were nodding their heads at your questions, will know if I have understood where you are coming from.  I'd love to continue the conversation face to face.  If I am at all accurate in guessing how you are feeling and the things that matter to you, I want to say that I share all of those feelings and sense of what matters.  If we can agree on nothing else, then we have found some common ground. 

Please bear with me as I explain how we got to where we are – I was involved in all the things I am speaking of, so please accept what I say as true, no matter what rumour you may have heard elsewhere.  I came as parish minister in February 2008, at that point the congregation of Colston Milton had been told by the central church that our present building had reached the end of its life, and that we should look to build a new building on a new site, recognising that our present site is relatively inaccessible to many, particularly those with mobility difficulties.  Our present building was at that point costing us something in the region of £10,000 a year to heat, producing over 30 tonnes of CO2.  I care deeply about the environment, and I also care about my congregation.  We simply could not afford to waste that sort of money or carbon.  The congregation was also dwindling in numbers and struggling to maintain the building – about 30 people contributing their money kept it all going, not just for their use but the use of many community groups – dance classes, seniors keep fit, bowling groups, an arts project, a drop in centre, Boys and Girls Brigade – none of whose donations were paying their way because of the high costs of trying to heat the building.  

It struck me then that our small congregation only used the hall for a couple of hours a week to worship, and so I asked the question, if we have been told we need a new building because this one is falling apart, why does the congregation need to own it?  It is not just the congregation who need a new building, it is the whole community, so why not try and set up an organisation to try and build a new building for the whole community; and not just provide a new building, but lets try and make the process one which builds community and provides skills and training and hopefully decent jobs to local people.  George MacLeod of the Iona Community, who used unemployed shipyard workers from Govan and trainee ministers in the Great Depression to rebuild Iona Abbey said, “the demanding common task alone builds community.” Well I believe that to be true, and what more demanding common task than to try and get a community to build their own community building?  To literally build community as well as a community building.  But was it possible to get a community to build their own building?  Was it possible to build a building in as environmentally sustainable manner as possible?  Did the community want or need a new building?  Where would it best be built?  How much would it cost?  Who would pay for it?  Who would organise it and run it and maintain it?

I was encouraged that there was a sense that this was possible – I was told that the old St Monica's RC chapel had been largely built by local people.  There is an American architect called Michael Reynolds (http://earthship.com) who was building truly sustainable, self-build buildings, from reclaimed materials - like car tyres and beer cans.  I heard stories of previous community gala days and theatre shows where everyone had mucked in to make it happen.  I had a sense that the community did need and want new facilities – in my first 6 months in Milton the Liddesdale Road community centre was closed, St Monica's chapel was demolished, various projects were closing, if our hall closed at least 8 local groups would lose their home.  But it all needed evidence, funders demand proof, not anecdotes, so we had to get answers.

So in 2008 the congregation applied to the Scottish Government's Climate Challenge Fund (CCF) to see if they would fund a 9 month long consultation with the community to establish what needs there were, which would also prepare plans for a future building to meet those needs to determine the best place to put it and to bring it to planning permission to answer the question if it can be made in as sustainable a manner as possible, using the skills and labour of local people.  That grant was for £43,000, and it employed an architect to answer all those questions.  I can provide anyone who is interested with sight of the results and the methods – it is a big and full document.  It sent a postcard questionnaire to every house in Milton, of which 250 were returned, about 5% return.  It met with and consulted with every constituted group that we could find operating in Milton, 12 groups, and 223 individuals of all ages.  It set up a website and blog to encourage debate.  We got onto the streets and asked people.  That gave a sense of what people in Milton said they wanted. 

The overwhelming sense was of things to do especially for the young, safe places to go, a swimming pool, a supermarket, a cafe, facilities for groups to meet in, a performance space, jobs, training; things that will not surprise anyone who knows Milton.  It also identified a need for a 'church' because large parts of the community thought that because the congregation of Colston Milton now worshipped in the 1950s hall, there was no 'church' in the back end of Milton, a place they could go and sit and find some peace.  I realised that almost all the funerals I conduct were only at the crematorium, a 20 minute service and no chance to return and reflect. Since those first days I've conducted over 230 funerals, lets say that is approximately 23,000 people have attended funerals for Milton people I have conducted, where they have been denied the opportunity to say farewell in their own community, in an inspiring and peaceful purpose built place that they could return to if they wished.  These are not 'church' people, these are members of the community of Milton who likely do not go to church yet have a broadly Christian understanding and long for spiritual comfort at certain times.

The consultation and appraisal study developed various options to address these needs; was it better to renovate an existing building, like the Liddesdale Road community centre, was it better to build on a new site - which one, the former school for the deaf, opposite Rosevale School, Cathay Street?  It identified the best option as a new build, on the site of the former Cathay Street tenements.  It was near the buses, it was a derelict site that attracted lots of anti-social behaviour, so it would make the biggest impact, and it was nearest geographically to the greatest proportion of the population.  It then had to make a business case for what we proposed, for it is fine for a community to say they want and need something, but unless it can work financially, no funder will help set it up.

Part of the process paid for by the CCF was also for the church to hand over control to the community by establishing a representative community development trust.  So a steering committee was formed, folk from all the then existing community groups were invited to join, and a group of about a dozen met, and about half a dozen committed to carry the plan forward, and so LoveMilton was born.  In 2009 it was registered as a Company Ltd by Guarantee and in 2010 as a Scottish Charity.  LoveMilton's constitution means that it is a company wholly owned by its members, and anyone who lives within Milton and who supports the objectives of the company can join, at no cost.  We currently have over 300 local members; they elect a board of directors, who govern the company on their behalf.  Over the last 5 years over 20 local people have acted as directors.  They have come from all ages and all backgrounds, from early 20s to late 60s, those with disabilities and those who are able bodied, with good and poor health, employed and unemployed, young mums and old dads, Roman Catholic and Church of Scotland and no religion at all, people new to Milton and people who have lived here for over 50 years.  Their common purpose was to try and improve their community.  Our membership equates to about 6% of the population of Milton, we aspire to have 100%; but let me put this in context at the last council elections, there was a voter turnout of 27%, of that 27% one of our councillors (the 2nd most popular by votes) received 22% of the vote – which translates as a 6% share of the total electorate.  So for those who say that LoveMilton is not representative, we are as representative as our elected representatives, but without the benefit of national publicity to try and get people to turn out, and we know it is a battle to get people to engage with positive change.

But back to 2009.  We spoke to the council about access to land, and we were given verbal assurances that they liked the idea and would support it, all 4 local councillors wrote with their support.  We got a written draft of a lock out agreement with the council, promising that they would not market the land and would 'hold it' for LoveMilton.  With hindsight, verbal assurances are inadequate, but we were all learning and there seemed to be genuine support from the council.  Then in 2010 the Climate Challenge Fund, having indicted that they would fund a new building, told us that they would not, but invited us to continue with the community activities.

We prepared to put in a Big Lottery bid, in 2011 for which we did a door-to-door survey of 500 people who were not among our then 288 members – the results were as follows: 

Do you believe Milton needs greater access to new activities and better facilities for young and old?

497 Yes, 3 No

Do you think increased access to arts, musical and performance-based activity would benefit this community?

495 Yes, 5 No

Do you think that a community project providing volunteering opportunities that offered training and access to further education or employment would have a positive impact in Milton?

500 Yes 0 No

Would you use a community cafe that was open throughout the week?

473 Yes 27 No

Do you think that Milton needs better public space that is free to use and that provides space for football/sports, an outdoor market and memorial garden?

494 Yes 6 No

I support the LoveMilton big build project: 500 signatures.

So 'yes' is the short answer your question: Were expensive plans drawn up for these buildings when the land hadn't even been secured?

And if so, why?

The problem we faced when trying to bring forward these plans was a chicken and egg situation.  Without plans for what you want to put on a piece of land, the council will not begin to talk about selling or transferring it – unless of course you are a big business who can pay cash up front and not worry if you get subsequent planning permission.  Had we somehow been in a position to buy the land before we had developed plans, you would rightly ask why we spent significant sums of money (Glasgow City Council wants £350,000 for the Cathay Street site) when we had no evidence to suggest the community needed anything, plans for what we wanted to put on it, or planning permission.  We did the best we could to get assurances that the land would be transferred to LoveMilton, at that point it was in the direct control of Glasgow City Council's Development and Regeneration Services (DRS), and we had a letter of support from its then director Steve Inch, promising to keep the land for us untill November 2011, while we raised funds.

Well the City Council reorganised and established City Property, who then took over all the City Council's vacant land, including that of DRS, and City Property are obliged to get as much money for a bit of land as they can.  So by the time we had raised enough money to begin work on phase one of the building, City Property owned the land, not DRS, and after a long period of negotiation and establishing their willingness to sell, and spending money on geological surveys to form the basis of negotiations, and paying lawyers, they set a price of £350,000 for the bit of land that 3 years previously we had been verbally told we'd get transferred for a nominal sum, or get a 99 year lease at a peppercorn rent.

Where is the church made out of beer cans which was highlighted in the national press in 2008?

The place of worship made of beer cans has not been built, fully costed plans exist for it, planning permission exists for it, building warrant exists for it, and geological surveys of the site exist.  All money spent that does not need to be spent again.  The sanctuary, 'the beer can church', based on the ideas of Mike Reynolds and the earthship, was always designed to be one part of a three part building. From the beginning there were to have been a larger community hub, built around a multi-purpose theatre space, cafe, offices, gallery space, and softplay and a third smaller multi-purpose games hall. 

Why was it changed to a community centre with exclusive use by the Church of Scotland on Sundays in 2012?

I'm not entirely sure I get the question, but I will do my best.  From the beginning, it had been LoveMilton's desire that it would entirely own the whole new building (the Big Build -consisting of three parts, a sanctuary, a large community hub and a smaller multi-purpose games hall) and that the congregation of Colston Milton would pay rent to use the sanctuary on a Sunday and at other times in the year.  A Church is not a building it is the people.  But the congregation had money from the sale of its 1960s building that had to be spent on a new building because this money had been gained from the sale of capital, it was only permitted to be spent on capital (i.e. building a new building, not on rent) so the idea that this money would buy X year's access had to change and we tried to develop the idea that the congregation would put capital in up front, in order to buy a rent free period. 

The central Church of Scotland was also keen to help fund the building, but could only do so if it then owned what it funded, as under charity laws it is not allowed to give its money away to another charity.  So by the time City Property was telling LoveMilton that it would have to buy the land the Church of Scotland was saying that they would buy it for us so that LoveMilton could then go on and build.  Part of the conditions would be that the congregation of Colston Milton would have use of the sanctuary on a Sunday.  Given that our current place of worship is not exclusively used by the Church of Scotland on any day of the week, I doubt that we would have sought this for a new building.  There has never been any change of the physical design, the sanctuary has not become a 'community centre', and the community centre has not become a 'church'.  The whole logic of a new sanctuary is that there be a place in Milton open to all people, whatever their belief that would help them connect with something bigger than themselves – call it what you like, a window to heaven, a place of worship, a head space, a chill out zone, a place of contemplation, and that remains key to the whole plan.  But the Church of Scotland was not prepared to spend £350,000 on a bit of land that by all accounts should be worth a fraction of that, hence there is still no 'church' made out of beer cans, or a part of a community centre which would be used by the Church of Scotland on Sundays.

How much funding has this project received since it's inception, who from, and how was it disbursed?

Our chief source of funding has been the Scottish Government's Climate Challenge Fund, which exists to help communities reduce energy use and carbon emissions, but we have received smaller sums from Vodafone, Awards for All, Voluntary Action Fund, the Napier fund.

The complete details of our income and expenditure are freely available on the OSCR (charity regulator) website, which also lists our charitable objectives.  I will try and give you a reasonable summary here of the largest items, but the information you are asking for is a substantial bit of work, the accounts run to many pages and lines, you are welcome to come personally and look over them.  What I can tell you is that the accounts have always been independently examined (which costs money), that they have always been accepted by OSCR (the charity regulator) and that all funds have been spent in accordance with the funders terms and conditions of grant, governance costs have typically been in the region of £600 per year with all the rest being spent on charitable activities.

In the financial year 2010/11 we received £65,559 of which £2250 was donations or earned income, the rest being grant funded – this was spent as follows staff costs £33,384, this includes all payroll fees, employers NI at 12% and pension contribution at 10%,  rental of premises £3695, professional fees £12,294, office admin £2997, publicity £455, marketting £994.

The financial year 2011/12 saw income of £156,410, of which £16,509 was earned income or donations, the rest being grant funded.  £60,638 staffing costs (1full time 2 part time and sessional staff, £44,718 for Glasgow Transitions support officer (this was a staff member who we were asked to administer by the CCF, but who did not work for LoveMilton but whose salary and costs came through our books), £15,000 project costs (market garden, materials for environmental improvements, school gardens at St Monica's and Miltonbank PS, recycling workshops, home energy checks and energy saving surveys and advice) insurance £1491, office rental £5074, £2000 volunteer and staff development, £922 telephone and internet, £1614 accountancy fees. 

2012/13 income of £31,383, of which £4231 was donations or earned income, the rest was grant. We had no staff that year, though we had sessional staff, all costs went on rent, environmental project costs, chiefly the conversion of a shipping container to be used as an outdoor shelter at Miltonbank PS, working with 9 local volunteers and volunteers from Enable Scotland to create louvred timber cladding insulation boxes to turn a shipping container into a warm learning environment, working with the Princes Trust to train young people in sustainable construction skills – this was an award winning project, where young people from Milton went down to London to be presented their award by Prince Charles. 

2013/14 income of £139,126, of which £11,000 was earned income or donations.  £65,507 staff salaries (3 full time, 1 part time), £6319 employers NI) £4000 sessional staff, £27,314 professional fees – mainly geological survey of the Cathay Street site, £4016 rent, £3371 printing and stationary, £3051 staff travel and training, £1931 insurance, £1513 training projects, £1149 heat and light.

£324,770 total grant funding over 4 years.  A lot of money, but not millions and less than the £350,000 price tag the City Council have put on the bit of derelict land at Cathay Street that has sat collection rubbish for the last 15 odd years.  This money has gained planning permission for a new community centre, plans which are still valid and accurate, and therefore money that does not need to be spent again.  It has helped local people save energy and therefore money.  It has reduced Milton's carbon emissions.  It has allowed LoveMilton to host numerous community fun days and fetes,a nd help support a pilot community cafe.  It has allowed many local people to get active in their community, serving as directors and as volunteers, it has employed a total of 8 members of staff full time and part time over those 4 years, as well as many more sessional workers.  Why do we think paying staff is a good use of that money?  Because good quality staff are able to put in far more work to further the aims of LoveMilton and benefit the community than purely working with volunteers.  The board are all volunteers and contribute huge amounts of time and effort for nothing.  Our staff are properly paid, and they are committed and idealistic; this last period they managed to stretch funding designed to cover an 18 month period to cover a full 24 month, by foregoing their pension contributions, being paid part time while working full time, and working extra hours.  There are limits to what volunteers alone can achieve and this is why funders are happy to fund paid posts for staff – because they know they offer good value for money in achieving project outcomes.  Our main funder has been the Climate Challenge Fund, whose chief objectives are the reduction of carbon emissions, our activities have done that by approximately 300 tonnes, as well as helping at least 50 local people into work or training. 

I get the impression from your comments that you think the money could have been better spent elsewhere, that much has been wasted on professional fees.  The way funding works is that groups have to bid very competitively for funds, funders in my experience do not give away their money lightly.  Any group that has received funding will generally have had to make a good case for it, certainly that is my experience for LoveMilton.  Part of the reason there is no new community centre and sanctuary yet is that raising money is hard.  There is not a single pot of money allocated to Milton, which had it not been spent on designing and planning a new building would have been spent elsewhere, it simply would not have been spent in Milton and the many local people helped into training and work would not have been so helped, and carbon emissions would not have been reduced.  If there were a single pot of money with Milton painted on it, totalling £324,770, if divided equally between the population of Milton would be just under £50 per head, over 4 years, so LoveMilton has 'cost' approximately £12 per year per person in Milton.  But of course there is no such pot.  To put it another way, GHA spent £250,000 removing the flats above the Skerray Street shops, £300,000 was spent on refurbishing Vallay Street park, SPT spent £100,000 resurfacing and reconfiguring the bus 'terminus' at Skerray Street. 

The roughly £60,000 spent on consultation, plans, permissions, building warrants, site surveys, engineer reports for the new building is not money wasted, it has yet to be realised.  The money would be wasted and lost if LoveMilton gave up on its plans, and if people stopped supporting us, but I see no sign of that.  It is hard and it is frustrating, but those plans will be realised.  I have been guilty of being very naïve in the timescale it would take to realise this new building – I thought it would have been completed by now, and it has hardly begun.  Yet Maryhill Burgh halls took 'more than 5 years to developing proposals for the project.'  (Maryhill Mercury winter 2009) They were able to start building the day they got the land signed over to them, projected to take 78 weeks, which I guess means they must have 'wasted' at least around £1 million before they had the land, drawing up plans, getting planning permission and building warrants.  Had the acquisition of that building not gone ahead, that money would all have been wasted.  Fees for building professionals is usually calculated on the basis of project costs, and Maryhill Burgh Halls cost £9.2 million, so I'm guessing at least 10% of that would have been on professional fees, and most of that upfront.

How many of the 135 people who have been trained in sustainable construction have been able to use this qualification to obtain paid work?

I cannot answer that question fully, the paid staff may be able to - I can say to you that on our last course, 11 of the 12 participants went into work.  Now I'm sure not all the courses have had a nearly 100% rate of employment, but I know that a past chairman of LoveMilton, after years out of work entered full time paid employment and is still working - partly as a result of the confidence and experience gained by volunteering at LoveMilton.  Getting people into good paid jobs is not straightforward and for many there is a lot of work to be done, but I believe all of those 135 people are closer to that goal than they would have been without LoveMilton.

So please don't let your impatience and frustration and deep desire to see a better community lead you to do down the genuine achievements of your friends and neighbours, assisted by committed people from outwith Milton.  If you share LoveMilton's vision of making Milton the best place to live... ever, then consider becoming a member, it is open to all residents of Milton who agree with the objectives of the charity, as a member you can become more active in guiding LoveMilton, you could stand for election as a director.  We are always looking for committed and capable local people who are able to help run the organisation.  You could volunteer with us, or participate in a course, or recommend others to who you think would welcome the opportunity, you can write to our councillors expressing your support, you could raise money locally, you could just smile at people in the street more and talk more to your neighbours and strangers, and pick up litter and transform our community.  The name of LoveMilton is deliberate; it came from our original consultation, where the most visible comment was the number of people who said they love Milton, they love their scheme, their neighbourhood, their community.

LoveMilton is your community development trust, committed to helping you make Milton the best place to live ever, but that requires you to get involved.

Yours Sincerely,

Christopher Rowe

LoveMilton Chair and Local Minister