Employees of South Hill Park have been dealt a fresh blow after decision makers at the council refused to act as guarantors for the arts centre’s pension scheme.

Former employees of South Hill Park’s governing body, the South Hill Park Trust, asked Bracknell Forest Council to act as guarantors for their pension scheme, the Berkshire Pension Fund.

However, their request was refused by the the council’s executive committee.

Explaining the decision, leader of the council Paul Bettison said: “Bracknell Forest Council’s decision-making executive was asked to use public funds to underwrite the South Hill Park Trust’s pension scheme.

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“The council has never used taxpayers’ cash to guarantee a separate organisation’s pension fund and has to make decisions like this based on what is best for public money. Agreeing to underwrite such a sum could place taxpayers’ money at risk at a time when public funds are already extremely stretched.

“The council also has to ensure it is being fair and equal in such decisions; guaranteeing such a request could mean other separate, charitable organisations could request such help and the council would be liable to put even further sums of public money at risk.

“While we are saddened to hear of the financial situation of the arts trust and have previously offered financial help, this request was felt too precarious for us to proceed.”

The decision may come as a blow to employees at South Hill Park, which has faced financial difficulties due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The arts centre was given  £112,814 as a grant from the Government’s Cultural Recovery Fund in April. However, bosses at South Hill Park said that it still needs donations in order to survive.

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It is understood that pensioners who have worked for South Hill Park are enrolled into the Berkshire Pension Fund, which is a Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS). A problem has arisen due to there no longer being any active members of the Trust’s scheme paying into the pension fund, meaning that there is now a deficit in the pension scheme.

The amount required to underwrite the pension scheme has been redacted from publicly accessibly council documents.

According to the arts centre’s website, trustees are responsible for ‘the overall control and strategic direction’ of South Hill Park. They regularly meet throughout the year to consider, determine and review reports from senior managers and South Hill Park’s strategies and policies.

Bracknell News:

The decision not to act as the pension scheme guarantors could mean that the Trust would seize to operate, according to council officers. However, this suggestion was disputed by Cllr John Harrison, executive member for culture, delivery and public protection.

Cllr Harrison said: “That’s officer speculation, it’s not definitive. It is within the ability of the Berkshire Pension Scheme to come to an agreement. There can be a way they can extend the time to pay over a number of years.”

South Hill Park Trust currently receives grants and financial support from Bracknell Forest and town councils which totals  £306,000, including funding for grounds and building maintenance and general grant support for the Trust’s activities.

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South Hill Park is owned Bracknell Forest Council and Bracknell Town Council and operated as an arts facility under a lease arrangement with South Hill Park Trust Limited.

South Hill Park operates as a charitable organisation. It is unclear which pension scheme current South Hill Park employees are enrolled into.

The Chief Executive of South Hill Park Trust said: "The pension fund is a legacy issue dating back to 1973. Although no current staff pay into the Berkshire Pension Fund there are 25 ex South Hill Park Trust employees in the scheme.

"The Trust continues to have ongoing discussions with the pension fund provider and key stakeholder Bracknell Forest Borough Council to explore alternative options.  All current staff are automatically enrolled into a workplace pension."

During the meeting, Cllr Harrison said neither the Park nor the gardens “The South Hill Park mansion is a property belonging to the borough council. It will not disappear.  The South Hill Park and gardens belong to the borough council and are maintained by it. These assets are not under threat.”

The decision to not act as guarantors for the pension scheme was made on Tuesday, June 1. Bracknell’s executive committee is entirely made up of Conservatives.

This article was updated on Thursday, June 10 with a statement from the Chief Executive of South Hill Park Trust.