Repost: Biospheric Foundation goes bust

Great reporting from The Salford Star


Star date: 2nd December 2015

A Salford Star Exclusive


“We grow citizens and got nowt, while our Mayor invested in growing mushrooms. That just about sums up our Mayor.” Graham Cooper, Oliver’s Youth Club

Three years ago, at a time of huge cuts, Salford City Council handed £300,000 to the Manchester International Festival as sponsorship for the Biospheric Foundation’s `innovative city farm’ in Blackfriars, with Salford Mayor Ian Stewart announcing that it was “money well spent”. Another £100,000 came via the Festival itself.

Now, the Community Interest Company which ran the Biospheric Project has gone bust with debts of over £100,000, including £46,893 owed to Salford Council. There’s also stories of dead fish, starving chickens, community equipment being held to ransom or wrecked, and exploitation of volunteers.

Full details here…
Vincent Walsh Biospheric Project Biospheric Project
Biospheric Project Biospheric Project Biospheric Project
Biospheric Project 78 Steps
click image to enlargeThe Biospheric Foundation, based in an Urban Splash mill by the banks of the River Irwell in Blackfriars, was supposed to be a state-of-the-art urban growing centre that featured chickens, bees and greenhouses on its flat roof, a forest garden outside and an `aquaponics’ system inside, where fish waste provides the food source for growing plants, and the plants provide a natural filter for the fish’s water.

“This farm, laboratory and research centre will benefit one of our most deprived communities” said Salford City Mayor, Ian Stewart, as he handed £300,000 of Salford Council money to the Biospheric Foundation back in November 2012.

“Encouraging people to grow and eat their own produce while showcasing Salford as supporting innovative, cutting edge research as part of this major international festival is money well spent” the Mayor added.

Three years later, the Biospheric Foundation Community Interest Company, which ran the project, has gone bust, with debts totalling £105,265, including £46,893 to Salford City Council, with assets estimated to bring not a penny back to creditors.

As well as the £300,000 from Salford Council, the Manchester International Festival (M.I.F) chipped in £100,000 with support from the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, the People’s Postcode Lottery and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation.

Just after the project opened, in July 2013, the Salford Star interviewed Jane Cleary, Director of Local Learning at M.I.F, who explained that the “legacy is really, really important for the project in order for it to make sense…The intention is that the company will continue to run, so it becomes an asset for the community for the next five to ten years…”

Instead, the Foundation was officially dissolved at the end of September, having received an average of £125,000 a year in public funding. Its legacy is a lot of acrimony from community groups, activists and volunteers, not just about its debts but also about how the project was run under the leadership of director Vincent Walsh, who was paid £15,000 towards his PhD studies.

One volunteer, who doesn’t want to be named, worked at the Biospheric Project for up to five days a week for almost two years but left in March disillusioned with the director…

“The animals were being mistreated as far as I was concerned” he says “I was trying to fight him for the money for chicken feed and stuff like that. Every month it was a battle for £30 or £40 to get a couple of bags of corn and whatever else they needed.

“Most of the fish died, I’d say, in the week I left” he adds “There were leaks in the aquaponic system and I was constantly having to put water in. At weekends Vinny was supposed to be doing it but when I’d come in on the Monday the plants hadn’t been watered so they’d died and there was no fresh water going to the fish. After about six weeks of that, out of 350 fish over three hundred died in a ten day period.”

The volunteer also talks of his struggle to get bus fare to go in and `volunteer’, staff and volunteers deserting the project and the whole aquaponics system crumbling after the first few harvests. Indeed, the only thing, he said, that seemed to be functioning at the building was a new business, growing mushrooms to sell to posh restaurants.

“I think it’s mismanagement” he explains “I think once Vinny’s PhD was completed he lost interest completely. There could have been a legacy if it was handled right. He was supposed to help people from the local community into work which never materialised. Did he exploit people? I wouldn’t be surprised, I was doing up to five days a week volunteering…”

Has anything good come out of the Biospheric Project? “Probably not…”

Meanwhile, local community groups which came into contact with the Biospheric Project were disgusted with how they were treated. Salford Involved had its gym equipment held hostage at the building with, initially, cash demanded for its release – or it would be scrapped.

Involved was hiring a floor in the Biospheric Project for woodwork, arts and crafts schemes and also used it for storing weight lifting equipment intended for a community gym it was opening in Broughton.

After the group had handed in its notice to quit the building, members had removed furniture using the lift but when it came to moving the weight lifting equipment were told that it was faulty and couldn’t be used. Involved got an agreement that, because the faulty lift was the Biospheric’s problem, it could store the equipment at no extra charge.

“We opened the gym and contacted Vincent in July this year asking when we could pick it up, only to be told the lift wouldn’t be ready until 2016” recalls Involved’s Nick Burke “We offered to contribute towards getting the lift fixed but got no reply. We’d ring him and he wouldn’t answer the phone.

“The next e-mail we received he said he’d got some people in and we had three options – we could pay him £25 a week indefinitely; we could dismantle the equipment, although the manufacturer said don’t, or they would dismantle it and sell it for scrap!” Nick adds “We got the email on the Wednesday and needed to answer by the next day, and had to action it on the Monday.”

The Salford Star has seen the email from Vincent Walsh containing the threats, beginning `You have three choices...’,…and the reply from a bemused Dave Fraser from Involved… “I have to say you have a very interesting way of working with people” he writes “it saddens me that you feel it’s acceptable to behave in the manner you have chosen…”

Nick takes up the story… “We sent an e-mail saying that we didn’t have the money to pay £25 a week and that we have a board and couldn’t make a decision that quickly. There was no response. And then we got an email saying that the lift was fixed and we could have our equipment back – if we pay £75 in cash to his building manager!”

The next email from Vincent tells Involved that Scott, the building manager, `has asked that the payment is put into the following account…’ and that `When payment has gone through, Scot will contact you for collection of the gym equipment.’

“There was no name on the bank account but it wasn’t the Biospheric’s account as it was a different number from the one we paid the rent into” says Nick “So we had to do a transfer into a random account – we had no idea who it was or where the money was going.

“We paid up because we needed the equipment” he adds “Then, after we paid, we were told that it was towards the lift being fixed but that’s not what we were told. It was not how it was put to us.

“Saying `You have to pay us £25 indefinitely’ after you’ve signed a piece of paper saying the equipment could be stored free, to me, would be classed as extortion” he argues “I also think charging £75 to get the equipment back is extortion. And saying `You have to do this or your equipment will be chopped up and sold for scrap’ is, to me, extortion…

“The reason we’re going public is because I’m sure, in theory, the Biospheric Project sounded like a great thing for the Council and the Manchester International Festival and all the people to be involved with, but the way it was not being managed was quite poor” he explains “I think the person who is the face of the project is not handling himself in a very professional manner.

“This isn’t about the money” he adds “We work in Broughton and Blackfriars, this is our area, and we are quite passionate, not only about the community but also other community groups we come into contact with. So we’re broadcasting to as many people as we can. We’re saying `This is our experience of working with him’. We’re not bitter, we’ve got a great community gym, but it’s to make sure that other people won’t say `Why didn’t you warn us?‘. We’re more than happy to hear his side of the story but he won’t answer the phone to us…”

When Jessica Kevill of the Bee Collective went to collect her equipment that was being stored at the Biospheric building, she too saw a different side to the Biospheric Project…

“I tried to get my stuff back and the lift was broken so I left it a couple of weeks and contacted him saying I was coming over with a van to pick it up” she recalls “I went in with someone who was helping me and we were shocked. Everything was all over the floor, the plants were dead, there was soil everywhere, the fish looked half dead and all my bee keeping stuff was full of mouse poo.

“There was a massive mouse infestation” she explains “The extractor which I use for extracting honey, a food product, was full of mouse poo; the mice had burrowed through all my frames, which are really expensive, the bee suits were totally ruined, I was gutted and must have thrown away about £300 of equipment that day.

“But the Bee Collective really doesn’t have that kind of money” she adds “All our money goes back into bees, making sure we’re educational, that people understand the importance of bumble bees and honey bees.

“Since I got my equipment back I haven’t been in touch” she says “But before that he was expecting me to come in and raise funds for his project. I’d be doing it as the Bee Collective but really the money would be going to the Biospheric Foundation.”

“Even though it was a Community Interest Company I think he just found the quickest way of getting the most amount of money to help fund his PhD and didn’t give anything back to the community” she argues “Everything has just gone downhill and it’s a proper shame because he took the money to give something back to the community but has just not provided it. It’s sad. The Manchester International Festival should have been asking `Why isn’t this working?‘…

The Salford Star contacted the Manchester International Festival which stated: “Manchester International Festival is sad to hear that the Biospheric Foundation is not able to continue in its present form.

“MIF’s partnership with The Biospheric Foundation (The Biospheric Project in 2013) supported the development of an innovative growing environment in an unused urban space, and delivered a successful public programme of workshops, events, training and open days for nearly 4,000 people (including schoolchildren, community members, local researchers and general public) during the Festival and in the months afterwards.

“It delivered new knowledge and skills for over 1,000 participants  and more than 200 volunteers during MIF’s involvement in 2013 alone – 79% of whom were confident of being able to use their learning further.”

The Salford Star then asked whether there were any accounts or reports, with the £400,000 funding broken down into where it was spent. We asked whether M.I.F or Salford City Council had any scrutiny function with Biospheric, and which organisation is ultimately responsible for the accountability of the £400,000. M.I.F did not respond.

It seems inconceivable that this amount of public money was not regulated on an ongoing basis, particularly when Salford Council had two councillors, Paul Dennett and Derek Antrobus on the Biospheric’s advisory board.

The Salford Star e-mailed the two councillors asking if either had ever actually scrutinised the company as `advisory members’, and whether they would let the community know their feelings on the state of the project. Councillor Antrobus had an automated response stating he was away until 7th December. Councillor Dennett didn’t respond at all.

On top of the £300,000 `sponsorship’ given by Salford Council to the Biospheric Foundation, £5,000 was donated from the East Salford Community Committee and an undisclosed sum was also given by the Irwell Valley Sustainable Communities fund towards the project’s 78 Steps shop and Wholebox scheme. The 78 Steps was supposed to provide affordable, accessible, organic food grown at the Biospheric building for the community. It shut down last year.

At September’s East Salford Community Committee meeting, an agenda item noted that “members were concerned that the Biospheric Foundation had  received funding from the Irwell Valley Sustainable Communities fund but monitoring forms had not been completed. Committee members had heard reports from residents that the building and animals had been abandoned.”

The neighbourhood manager, Ross Spanner, was to contact officers “regarding concerns with investment, monitoring and animal welfare”. The Salford Star understands that his response to the follow up meeting of the Committee last week was deemed unacceptable and investigations are ongoing.

The Salford Star asked Kay Johnson Gee Corporate Recovery Ltd, which is handling the affairs of the dissolved Biospheric Foundation CIC, why there were no asset values in the company and for what Salford Council is owed £46,893. The promised response from Kay Johnson Gee never arrived.

Vincent Walsh has set up a new company (incorporated June 2015) called Biospheric Studio Limited, of which he is sole director. The company currently has an aquaponic installation at Manchester Museum, commissioned for £15,000… `The first ecological system within a museum setting…The ecological hub will visually demonstrate and highlight the array of possibilities of developing technological and ecological systems within the built environment’ etc…

The Salford Star understands that Vincent is still based at the Urban Splash building in Blackfriars and that the roof garden is functioning. Yesterday the derelict forest garden was being hastily cleaned up. Meanwhile, the mess that’s left in the community can’t be obliterated that easily…

Graham Cooper, a community activist and youth worker with Oliver’s Youth Club , challenged the handing over of £300,000 of public money to the Biospheric Project from day one…

“People from the community complained and no-one from the Council listened” he says “This story totally validates my challenge going back to 2013 when the Mayor dished out £300,00 for a six week project connected to this organisation, so we could understand how to sell posh mushrooms to shops in Chorlton. I still fail to see the sustainability of this project for the community or the added value, or any benefit for the community in Salford.

“I got fobbed off because it was a one of the Mayor’s pet projects” he argues “It’s this new mindset of the Labour councillors coming on like they’re in Chorlton when, in actual fact, it’s Salford. Their silence at the moment is golden. I can understand why the Government is critical of local authorities’ spend when over half a million pounds has been wasted on this.

“At the time of making cuts to our youth provision and other public services they gave the Biospheric all this money” he adds “We’ve had no funding from Salford Council for over five years. We grow citizens and got nowt, while our Mayor invested in growing mushrooms. That just about sums up our Mayor.”

The Salford Star contacted Vincent Walsh with the following questions but he never responded…

1) Why does the company have no assets – where have all the fish, chickens and equipment gone? 2)  For what do you owe the Council over £46k? It can’t all be business rates, can it? 3) What is the future of the building in Salford? Has it shut down completely? 4) What legacy is there in Salford from the project? 5) Is it ethical to bust a CIC company and then start up again almost straight away?

The Star also asked him if he would like to comment on the Salford Involved gym equipment heist, the missing report on the Irwell Valley Sustainable Communities grant, the volunteers’ experiences, and the agenda item at the East Salford Community Committee meeting.
* The full breakdown of the £105,266 debts owed to companies isSalford City Council £46,893 (in five separate amounts); British Gas £18,996; Queen’s University Belfast £30,000; BT £291; Beever and Struthers £1; Organic North Wholesalers £1,436; United Utilities £1,024; Vincent Walsh (director’s loan) £6,622


About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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2 Responses to Repost: Biospheric Foundation goes bust

  1. Tracy says:

    This doesn’t surprise me. I complained to the Manchester Museum about the aquaponics system being tantamount to animal cruelty. It was overstocked (from a fish-keeper’s point of view – I have goldfish and tropical fish of several varieties) and the fish had no enrichment, just a bare tank. They agreed to make some slight changes – removing a couple of fish and putting in some rocks – but I haven’t been back to check as in my opinion this wasn’t enough. But it was obvious I wasn’t going to get any further with my arguments about it basically being factory farming.

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