The charity behind a popular Glasgow accessible cycling centre is being investigated by the Scottish charity regulator, The Ferret has learned, causing a Scottish Government grant to be suspended.
Free Wheel North’s cycle track in Glasgow Green is now under threat of temporary closure, following an acrimonious dispute between its founder and staff, volunteers and former trustees.
The Scottish Government confirmed that funding for the charity — which runs a cycle track with disability bikes at Glasgow Green — was stopped in February after the complaints were lodged with the charity regulator OSCR.
OSCR confirmed it has opened an investigation but stressed this does not mean it has found wrongdoing by the charity.
Free Wheel North was founded in 2008 by Norman Armstrong. It aims to promote better mental and physical health through community engagement and has a special focus on people with disabilities.
The charity set up the Glasgow Green cycle track in 2011, providing accessible bikes including disability trikes and go-carts. It is now used by both disabled groups as well as local and visiting children and families, who can rent bikes for up to 45 minutes at a time.
Last year the cycle centre team was shortlisted for the Glasgow Times Community Champion Awards and won awards in 2016 and 17.
In recent years it has opened a second centre at White House in Maryhill, which it has transformed with the help of volunteers into a “cycling and walking hub” with a bike shop and event space. An onsite cafe opened last month.
In October last year the charity was awarded £150,000 by the Scottish Government to pilot a special project for servicing and maintaining adapted bikes as part of the government’s year long Rock Up & Ride scheme.
However the funding was stopped following multiple complaints raised by staff and volunteers of the Glasgow Green base, along with former trustees, nine of whom contacted The Ferret.
Staff and volunteers claim the dispute is caused by the ongoing failure of directors to address their concerns over the management of the cycling centre — including disagreements about opening times, safety measures and staff working conditions.
However Armstrong claims that the centre is now in “terminal decline”, and is being subsidised by other projects run by the charity. In messages seen by The Ferret he has claimed there is now not enough money to pay staff wages on an ongoing basis.
Freelance payments have been suspended, which means led rides — local cycle trips led by an experienced cyclist — and lessons have been stopped.
The track, he told The Ferret, may have to close “on a temporary basis” while he puts in place measures that could help it re-open in a “more sustainable way”.
However staff claim that the centre is sustainable and still recovering post-Covid-19.
In 2019 it brought in £40,000, with almost 41,000 visitors to the track. Numbers from January to July this year – shared with the Ferret by staff – show visitor numbers are still down by about a third. But the track has brought in £22,000 so far, excluding led rides and lessons.
In June some staff and volunteers wrote to Armstrong asking him to consider selling the cycle track to them to run separately from Free Wheel North, which they claim would safeguard its future. But the offer was refused.
Armstrong told The Ferret that staff had themselves exacerbated funding problems by raising the complaints, making it difficult to pull in funding.
He added: “Luckily I have been building up meaty reserves for the charity, often by sacrificing my own salary.
“But the cycling centre is running a deficit budget due to problems with the way it has been run by staff. I may have to close the cycling centre temporarily and relaunch it when it can be run more efficiently.”
Everyone involved, he said, must be “fully behind” the aims and objectives of the charity in order for it to recover.
Disputes with staff – which one team member described as “horrendous” – include the use of a booking system, first introduced during Covid-19, which staff say allows the track to run smoothly and safely.
Armstrong claims it limits attendance and says staff have refused to open on a Saturday, or after 3pm in winter, after it is dark.
But serious concerns about governance have also been raised. One AGM, held in June, had to be abandoned and a second was held only for a small number of members, with staff and volunteers involved in the dispute excluded.
A former-trustee and long standing volunteer, who spoke to The Ferret on the condition of anonymity said many people involved were “at their wits end” and claimed that they only approached OSCR when they felt they had nowhere else to turn.
Armstrong refutes this and says cycle track staff and volunteers have refused to work with him to address problems.
Many who spoke to The Ferret expressed fears facilities would be lost. “Free Wheel North does amazing work for people with special needs, and is a life-line for many of them,” said one long standing volunteer. “It must not be allowed to close.”
Many regular service users are also aware of the ongoing rift. One said: “I think help of some sort is needed to repair and mend issues and this is my main motivation for raising this concern.
“There is a lot of support for this project and I would like to see it continue to thrive. I hope there will be meaningful talks in the near future by the board, staff and volunteers as they need to know that their futures are secure.”
Last week OSCR released an “interim report” due to the “substantial level of public interest” in its inquiry.
In a statement it added: “We have received a significant number of concerns about the running of Free Wheel North and have opened an inquiry into the charity.
“Opening an inquiry does not mean that we have found any wrongdoing by the charity, simply that we need to know more about the situation.
“We are in contact with the charity trustees to obtain information that will support our understanding of the current operations of the charity and the matters of concern.”
Image thanks to iStock/Phill Thornton