12 June 2017 – Rumblings over rent hikes driven by an increasingly sclerotic NRA appear to have pushed the Artists’ Rifles Clubhouse into contacting The Times newspaper and starting a public fundraising appeal. But does the association really need the extra cash?
The report (here, paywalled, by David Sanderson, the paper’s arts correspondent) describes the situation, with club owner Moss Mustafa going on record to describe the shooters who use and feel welcomed in his clubhouse. The story explicitly mentions 21 SAS, the Artists’ Rifles themselves, although the regiment and the clubhouse broke their formal ties in 1967.
The annual rent increase demanded by the NRA is from £3,000 to £15,000, a rise of 500%.
A number of mid-ranking Conservative MPs (Philip Hollobone, Adam Holloway and David Tredinnick) have been persuaded to lean on NRA chairman John Webster and chief exec Andrew Mercer. The trio were even persuaded to sign a letter to the Charity Commission complaining about how the NRA, a registered charity, is behaving. The NRA’s most recently published General Council (committee) meeting minutes, from February 2017, reveals that a group of NRA trustees met the MPs. Silke Lohmann, an NRA member who emailed the GC, expressed the fear that the NRA was ignoring the MPs’ warning.
After what the NRA minutes described as “full disclosure of all communications with MPs” the Charity Commission is said to have written back and said the dispute was nothing to do with them.
Though Moss has certainly made his enemies on and off Bisley Camp by going public, not to mention the crowdfunding appeal for £85,000 to cover legal costs against the NRA, he is not alone. The NRA has targeted every rifle club on Bisley Camp for swingeing, immediate rent hikes measured in the several hundred percentage point region. Not every club’s starting point for rents is so low as the Artists’ – and, equally, not every club has tried to fight the increases.
Some, like Bullet Lodge, simply folded and quit the camp, allowing their old clubhouse to be turned into a private rental for a small syndicate of well-off shooters, akin to a luxury caravan. Others have, so the rumour mill has it, rolled over with only a few token murmurs of protest.
Nobody knows what the NRA is playing at by demanding these rent hikes. The association itself has not explained its actions, beyond seeding the rumour mill with lots of talk about “fair market rents”. Some insight is available in the GC minutes linked above, though the published justification leans heavily on the notion that as the people who originally built the clubhouses are now dead, there is money to be made from their successors in name – most importantly, it seems in the NRA’s eyes, money that isn’t already flowing into its well-lined pockets, which it brands as a “subsidy”. Repeated reference is made to “the law”, though, interestingly, not once is this law cited by name or other checkable reference. edit to add – this is apparently Elitestone v Morris, citing the Law of Property Act 1925.
The difference between a financial subsidy involving the transfer of money from one party to another and rents that are objectively low is a common fallacy perpetuated by those with their eyes on another’s wallet.
NRA not about heritage?
NRA chairman Webster adds, in the minutes, that “the heritage aspect is not an object of the Charity – the NRA is not here to protect buildings – the NRA is here to protect and foster shooting.” Later on he adds that “the market sets the rents”, which is a curious thing for a monopoly landlord operating in a unique bubble to tell his tenants. UKSN’s author sees his words as akin to those of a commercial property speculator, not the custodian of a unique and fragile sporting ecosystem.
In chief exec Andrew Mercer’s paraphrased words in the minutes explaining the trustees’ stance, “Mixed motive investment is an asset that produces a return for the NRA, and at the same time, pursues the objects of the NRA. Because all the 100+ buildings subject to tenancies on the NRA estate have covenants that result in their use having to be related to shooting, they all, to some degree, pursue the charity’s objects.”
This is stretching the truth: the NRA advertised the Bullet Lodge clubhouse in March 2016 (PDF link) as a “private dwelling or clubhouse in connection with members’ shooting at Bisley.” Leaving aside the questionable lack of commas, it is difficult to see how leasing out a domestic property for a sum in excess of £8,000/year, to a well-heeled couple as a second home, pursues the NRA’s central objective of promoting marksmanship.
Money, money, money, must be funny…
In fiscal year 2014 the NRA made a profit – sorry, surplus – in excess of £400,000. Last fiscal year that figure was £252,000, according to the NRA treasurer’s AGM speech of 2016. The accounts for fiscal/calendar year 2016 (both, unusually sensibly, coincide) show a net expenditure of £100k on turnover of £5.4m.
Buried on page number 24 of those accounts is the figure for estate rental income: £961,564 in 2016, up from £883,721 the previous year: an increase of £77,843, or 8% year on year. Rental income from Bisley Camp alone makes up a little under a fifth of the NRA’s entire turnover, and comes in at just shy of a million pounds a year. It is not immediately obvious whether this figure includes retail rentals (i.e. Friday and Saturday nights in NRA-owned huts, campsites, etc).
The conclusion UKSN’s author draws from these figures is that the NRA is living within its means but wants to sweat what it sees as its assets. In this regard it appears to be taking a very short-sighted, cash-driven approach.
Killing the golden goose
The hard truth is the Bisley clubhouses do not have the potential to become very much bigger than they are, in profit-making terms, without destroying the central ethos that attracts people to them.
Members spend money in the clubhouses primarily because they are social hubs and secondly because they see those premises as part of their own interest, over and above the function of an inexpensive pub-cum-hotel. Many clubhouses have installed reloading rooms for producing ammunition, while others offer food, drink and basic accommodation to their members. Almost all have armouries of whatever size, so members can securely store rifles and ammunition in them. All are run on the basis that the money generated from their trading goes, where possible, towards subsidising their shooting activities. For example, the LMRA offers an Empire match plus issued GGG ammunition for £45 per head more or less every other weekend during the competition season. At full retail price that would cost (assuming 5 per marked target) about £80/head.
Forcing higher costs on those clubhouses simply diverts money paid by their members away from shooting activities and into the commercial pockets of the NRA; money that could be being used to make the use of NRA facilities cheaper, directly or indirectly, would instead be lost to those camp users altogether.
Doing some sums, and assuming (inaccurately, but indicatively for our purposes here), if each of the 11 clubhouses on Club Row that the NRA can get money out of pays £3,000 and the NRA hikes their rents to £15,000, in total the NRA will receive an extra £132,000 gross per annum. Evidently the NRA chief exec and chairman have both decided this relatively small sum – only slightly more than the chief exec’s salary – is worth spending six-figure sums in the courts to secure. The net gain is nil and the amount of goodwill from clubs towards the NRA is not likely to hold up given its commercial behaviour.
UKSN’s author is reliably informed that commercial litigation against the NRA is active in the county court by another major club. The saga continues.