IT took Lyme Regis councillors almost two hours this week to finally break a stalemate over whether they should continue paying a £10,000 grant to community interest company LymeForward.
The protracted debate came amid claims that LymeForward CIC was being “discriminated against” and treated differently to other town council grant recipients, while some councillors raised concerns about the organisation’s governance and financial transparency, and said it was not clear how the grant money was being spent.
The £10,000 grant for LymeForward, which operates the food bank and other community projects to help the vulnerable, was one of several to be approved in February 2020, with £2,500 paid each quarter.
However, the council noted that most recipients had been unable to act in accordance with their initial applications due to COVID-19 restrictions, and has been reviewing grant agreements to ensure future compliance as it moves into a “post-COVID era”.
The grant agreements for all other organisations were approved earlier this month, but the council said it needed to set clear objectives for LymeForward before funding could be released.
LymeForward has already lost £6,000 a year in funding from Dorset Council, which scrapped all grants for Local Area Partnerships in March.
In highlighting the importance of the organisation at this week’s Tourism, Community & Publicity Committee meeting, LymeForward chair Sue Davies said that they had seen a surge in demand for the food bank due to COVID-19, and were the only local organisation in receipt of a town council grant to continue to work throughout the pandemic, extending its services to support the community.
According to its latest newsletter, the food bank is currently supporting about 25 people.
Ms Davies said that during this time there had been “little support or interest” from town councillors and many LymeForward members and, after taking on the chairmanship, she had to deal with a “legacy of corporate and HR issues”.
However, she said LymeForward had since opened itself up to scrutiny, had complied with all legal requirements of a CIC, including the submission of various reports on all financial data, had its accounts approved by an accountant, and was making a “real tangible difference to people’s lives as we move out of COVID”.
Ms Davies has had a public falling out with the town council’s former representative on LymeForward, Cllr Belinda Bawden, who raised concerns about the governance of the organisation and a high turnover volunteers and staff.
The argument resulted in Ms Davies submitting two complaints about Cllr Bawden to Dorset Council’s monitoring officer, both of which were ruled to be unfounded.
Commenting on this, Ms Davies continued: “As more stringent lockdowns emerged, we were continually having step up our services and provide a safe system of care for volunteers – so much to celebrate.
“But through this LymeForward was becoming undermined by a campaign of intimidation and harassment, and despite raising concerns with the town clerk and mayor no action was taken. Up to this present day the situation has been escalating with mounting evidence.”
Commenting on the delay to the grant payment, said added: “Earlier this month we became aware that an additional clause had been inserted into a draft term agreement with the town council with no prior knowledge or consultation. This is discriminatory in as far as we are the only organisation to have this revision imposed upon us.”
Three letters from members of the public were then read out on the matter.
One, from former Lyme Regis resident Geoff Baker, questioned whether it was appropriate for councillors who were associated with LymeForward through the Lyme Regis Community Support group and other organisations to vote on the grant agreement.
Janet Breeze questioned what the town council’s policy was on funding a CIC “in the full knowledge there are serious concerns about its governance and financial management”.
Caroline Aldridge, a former food bank volunteer, questioned how the grant money would be spent, adding that the food bank was the main function of LymeForward and this did not cost anywhere near £10,000 a year to run. She claimed that funding was being spent on staff wages which was not appropriate for a small-scale food bank.
The relationship between the town council and LymeForward has now become so strained that one member said she had had to seek medical advice after a recent meeting between the two organisations.
Cllr Reynolds left what she described as an “uncomfortable” meeting, saying she had become very upset by the “dreadful behaviour” of council officers, as well as a letter she had received the previous day from the town clerk and mayor that had made her feel “completely inadequate”.
She said that she had been so distressed over the matter that she could not stop crying or shaking, and had since had to see a doctor.
Cllr Reynolds commented: “The reason for this behaviour is due to the ongoing problems that this council appears to have with LymeForward, the only organisation that has worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic, providing the food bank throughout, and they also worked as an emergency hub for Dorset Council during that time.”
She listed several other community projects that LymeForward was managing and questioned what else the council was looking for.
Cllr Michaela Ellis added that LymeForward had been described as a “priority organisation” when the £10,000 grant was first allocated for its core running costs, with no additional conditions in the agreement.
She continued: “All of the other recipients have had their grant agreements confirmed with no extra conditions, so why is LymeForward being treated differently. Is this not discrimination?”
She later added: “I just can’t understand why people are arguing about this money which is being used to help our most vulnerable people. “I don’t like the way some people are treating LymeForward when it has done so much for the people of this town.”
Cllr Tara Webb also described the scrutiny placed on LymeForward as a “witch hunt”.
Cllr Rob Smith said he felt one of the main issues was that LymeForward members wanted more transparency on how money was being spent, and concerns were also raised about the organisation’s level of community engagement, which was one of its initial priorities.
The Mayor, Cllr Brian Larcombe MBE, said he would have liked to have seen LymeForward assisting the council with community engagement on major matters, such as the proposal to create a Dorset National Park.
Cllr Bawden said LymeForward had more paid staff than ever before but seemed unwilling to carry out the tasks it was first set up to do.
Council officers also raised the issue that LymeForward would likely change its articles of association in its constitution at its next annual general meeting, following Dorset Council’s scrapping of Local Area Partnerships.
Town clerk John Wright said this could fundamentally change the nature of the organisation, and the council would then have to review its grant agreement again.
Having previously agreed that they had to set clear objectives for LymeForward to move forward with the grant agreement – a decision they are unable to rescind for six months – councillors struggled to find a way to move forward and the protracted debate continued for two hours.
Cllr Kelsey Ellis proposed that they set the objective for LymeForward to provide financial transparency, but the town clerk said that it was unclear exactly what this meant.
Cllr Ellis eventually withdrew her proposal and it was agreed instead to go ahead with the quarterly payment of £2,500 on the condition that LymeForward works with the town council to deliver its community engagement strategy.
It is likely that this will be considered again following LymeForward’s annual general meeting in November.