6 February, 2000
Iain Copping, the man at the centre of events, commands a high degree of loyalty from those who have worked with him. Widely seen as "the man with the Midas touch", he was responsible for the creation and meteoric growth of Keighley Business Forum. He was also ultimately responsible for its ignoble collapse.
Keighley Business Forum had grown from an occasional "lunch club" for local businessmen in the early 1990s, into a powerful lobby organisation with its own Business Centre at Cedar House in Keighley. Copping left his job as a senior council officer to become KBF's full time Executive Director in July 1993.
By the mid 1990s, public opinion had pushed environmental issues into mainstream concerns. Copping was quick to spot the huge potential.
He was aided by John Dennis, an environmental consultant and expert in Waste Management. Dennis had set up a regional office for his Wigan based employers, A H Leech Son & Dean, in Cedar House and was soon working closely with Copping.
In 1996 the KBF Waste Minimisation and Management Project was born, with generous public funding. A DTI "Skills Challenge" grant brought in £200,000 and this was used to lever a further £60,000 grant from Keighley's Single Regeneration Budget. It was believed that the Waste Minimisation Project would eventually become "self funding as a commercial entity" and lead to the establishment of an Environmental Trust "to ensure benefit to the community".
It engaged in useful work with local businesses and it's success soon led to a deluge of public funds for related projects. In under 2 years Keighley Business Forum extracted funding commitments in excess of £1 million from Keighley's Single Regeneration Budget alone. Most of this money was directed towards the Waste Minimisation Project.
The involvement of John Dennis also led to funds from the government's controversial landfill tax credit scheme. Grants came from the Bradford Environmental Action Trust (£55,000) and the Wigan-based Greenbank Trust (£100,000). Dennis had close links to both these organisations.
But all this funding seemed to produce little additional practical results. It did, however, result in a great deal of international travel and "networking" and led to high expectations that Keighley could make a major national impact in the field of Environmental Management.
In 1998 the Department of Education and Employment (DfEE) announced a scheme to create 120 "Centres of Excellence" across the country. Copping soon had the support of all the key local players for a bid to create the "Yorkshire Environmental Management Virtual Centre of Excellence". This had as it's aim "to provide business, other agencies and individuals with the skills needed to ensure they can comply with environmental good practice in a cost-effective manner. Therefore ensuring that the region has the skills to deliver the outcomes required by the Government regarding Regional Sustainability and Local Agenda 21 strategies."
The "Centre of Excellence" bid stated "A unique feature is the involvement of the Bradford Environmental Action Trust (BEAT) in this proposal; this organisation provides a major gateway to the wider community." Most members of BEAT are totally unaware that they were "partners" in this scheme.
The bid was successful, bringing in a £265,000 capital grant. This particular grant would later prove to be the straw that broke the back of Keighley Business Forum.
The plan was to stop "delivering" services directly and set up a major internet website which would become the focus for Environmental Management nationwide. This website was to be called "Envirospace".
By now the Waste Minimisation Project was dominating the work of Keighley Business Forum and so it was decided that Copping should take the project off as a company in it's own right. Thus was born NCEEM - The National Centre of Excellence for Environmental Management.
In April 1999 NCEEM officially broke away from Keighley Business Forum, buying all the "business and assets" of it's Waste Minimisation Project for £52,000. John Dennis, by now chairman of BEAT, became a director of one of the companies that ran NCEEM.
Throughout all this frenzied activity, concerns on the ground were already beginning to surface. In an article focussing on Keighley SRB in the 1999 summer edition of their newsletter, Keighley Friends of the Earth noted:
"The experience and expertise of local environmentalists has not been encouraged. Decisions about local sustainable development have been 'covered' by Keighley Business Forum and it's Waste Minimisation Programme and Bradford Environmental Action Trust. BEAT recently have given almost half of it's landfill Tax monies to the Waste Minimization group. KFoE agree that the Waste Minimization Programme is trying to address environmental problems but are concerned about conflicts which may arise between 'interest groups' and the real interests of the people of Keighley."
Meanwhile things were going badly at NCEEM. The cost of developing the "Envirospace" website had grown to £115,000, with seemingly little to show for it. Also some expected sources of additional funds had failed to materialise.
Despite John Dennis bringing in a £100,000 landfill tax grant, Copping making a £10,000 "directors loan", and the ongoing flow of public funds from the SRB board, NCEEM was unable to meet it's commitments.
The news was released via the front page of the Keighley News on November 12th, just 2 weeks after Iain Copping had collected an award for the scheme in the US.
In a statement Iain Copping said: "What's happened is that some of the income we were anticipating from various sources has been delayed through circumstances beyond our control. The board of directors has taken advice and appointed Price Waterhouse Coopers to look at a voluntary liquidation which can be agreed at a creditors' meeting on Monday, November 22. At the moment efforts are still being made to see what parts of the business can be rescued."
On November 22nd both companies behind NCEEM went into voluntary liquidation, with debts of over £400,000.
Amongst the creditors was Keighley Business Forum, which was owed £37,000 by NCEEM. At this time KBF itself was struggling and this pushed it close to the edge. Frantic efforts by KBF's new director, Elaine Pearson, looked for a while as though they might save the company. Bradford Council and Yorkshire Forward (the regional government office) had helped put together a rescue package.
But it was at this point that the £265,000 DfEE grant made in April 1998 came back to haunt them. Because it had been originally given to Keighley Business Forum and never properly transferred to NCEEM, KBF now found themselves liable for the money.
In a statement issued days after NCEEM's liquidation, Elaine Pearson for KBF said: "The series of events which unfolded over the last few months has within the last few days become such that the board had no choice but to initiate insolvency proceedings. The failure of NCEEM meant some £50,000 of cash which was expected to be received mainly in September is now not going to be received. The final nail in the coffin has been advice received that some of NCEEM's liabilities could revert to KBF."
Keighley Business Forum went into liquidation with debts of over £400,000 on 14th December.
Yorkshire Forward, the regional government office responsible for monitoring the DfEE grant, told KDIS:
"£256,000 was paid to Keighley Business Forum for the purchase of IT and office equipment, chemical testing equipment and office alterations to enable partner organisations (colleges, schools etc) to deliver training.
"An investigation is underway to determine what happened to the money.
"Yorkshire Forward was aware that the project name had changed to NCEEM but did not know, nor give approval for, the transfer of Skills Challenge contracts to a separate company called NCEEM Ltd."
It was a point contested by KBF's chairman, Tim Parr. He told KDIS "Not all the money was used to buy computers etc. for KBF. Some of the money was, for example, spent on equipment that was retained by Keighley College in connection with the project. The assets which were bought by KBF were largely transferred to NCEEM. Some of the money was, I believe, spent on revenue as opposed to capital items.
"My understanding was that KBF fulfilled its commitments in connection with it and I further understand that Yorkshire Forward confirmed this shortly before KBF was put into liquidation. There was an obligation to spend the money in a certain way and that is what happened. I understand that there has been a certain "loss of face" at Yorkshire Forward/Government Office and some officials there are trying to divert blame."
Neither does John Dennis accept that NCEEM was responsible for KBF's collapse. He told KDIS: "I know it was blamed on it and it was very convenient - I think it was a very convenient excuse. It happened just at the time when NCEEM still owed it a bit of money and there was a bit of a cock-up on the transfer. But I don't think it was the entire story."
In all 19 people lost their jobs in the 2 companies. The fall-out effect of the debts on a host of other smaller companies has yet to be quantified.
Keighley Business Forum
KBF Waste Minimisation Project
NCEEM - The National Centre of Excellence for Environmental Management
Landfill Tax Bonanza
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