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17 January 2019
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A call to alms

As the bailiff for a 350-year-old charitable trust set up to provide hospitality for fifteen gentlemen ‘of poor or modest means’, Bob Rabagliati has an unusual FM role – but it’s one that brings him immense joy. Martin Read reports.

Trinity House
©John Reynolds

24 March 2016 | By Martin Read

It’s all too easy for facilities management as practised in charities to slip under the radar, yet the number of UK charities run into the thousands with each demanding some form of FM to function. And at the Trinity Hospital Estates Trust charity in Retford, Nottinghamshire, there’s an FM story that certainly departs from the shiny corporate office norm.

It starts with Bob Rabagliati, whose job title is unusual even by FM’s broad standards. He is known as bailiff – a title that Rabagliati and his 17 predecessors have held in the 350 years since the charity was founded.

The trust was established in 1671 through an endowment from local doctor John Darrel. In his will he left his property, Retford Hall, to provide accommodation for 15 “poor bachelors or widowers of good character, who are not less than 50 years of age”.

Retford Hall was replaced by the current Grade II listed Trinity Hospital almshouse building in 1832, where the charity continues to offer this hospitality to its 15 residents, who continue to be known locally as the ‘brethren’.

Darrel’s endowment also included a portfolio of land and properties for private rent. In the 17th century, these made up a third of all Retford’s property. The town has since grown, but throughout the centuries it’s been the income generated from private rental properties that has gone to maintain the repair requirements of the entire portfolio and to support the brethren in their almshouse cottages.

Today, the charity offers the same hospitality and benefits to its 15 gentlemen residents today as it did 350 years ago – but its property portfolio and the ambition of its current trustee and bailiff have certainly changed.

The FM requirement
Bob Rabagliati’s role as bailiff is all-encompassing. He is managing director, estates manager, finance director, facilities manager, development manager, property manager, project manager and contracts manager all in one. And he is responsible to the charity’s sole trustee (see box).
Recipients of FM service fall into two groups – the brethren at Trinity Hospital, and the private tenants in the 60 private rental properties of various types dotted across town.

Cleaning – required for the Almshouse building, estates office and communal areas in the private rental properties – is provided by the charity’s matron and office administrator. A husband-and-wife team of gardeners, who have recently transformed the gardens at Trinity Hospital, also undertake sundry grounds maintenance jobs at the rental properties.

The estates office administrator initiates routine repairs, but it’s Rabagliati who generates most of maintenance project work, engaging small local contractors for maintenance and refurbishment work. “Using regular, long-standing and trusted contractors in every specialisation is key to making the system work. We build up a loyalty with them, they get to know all of our properties – and they then respond promptly.”

“We pride ourselves in sorting problems out quickly – something that’s particularly important when dealing with our elderly residents and tenants.”

Trinity House
©John Reynolds

Almshouse extension

Over the years, the almshouse building has seen plenty of roofing, stonework and chimney stack repairs to keep the external structure in good order. Refurbishment programmes, including one to better insulate and heat the cottages, have also been conducted.

But last year saw the first addition to the building for the brethren’s benefit in more than 100 years. The garden room, constructed over eight months and built on to the rear of the building, provides a fresh new space for social gatherings.

Laundry facilities, an internal hospitality suite to allow visitors to stay on site and a kitchen to support social events were also part of the project, as was improved vehicle and pedestrian entrances on to the hospital site.

“I was conscious that I’d invested a lot of money over the last seven years in upgrading and refurbishing our rental properties,” explains Rabagliati. “But while the brethren receive the benefits of living there, we’d done nothing physical to upgrade their facilities.”

Rabagliati used a local architect whose work included sympathetic contemporary additions to historic buildings. The garden room was opened at the beginning of this year.
”The trick was to involve the brethren right from the start – and they have been, right down to choosing the furniture.”

Rental properties
Constant investment in repair and refurbishment characterises the needs of the charity’s Victorian rental stock. Rabagliati documents a host of construction projects seen to fruition over the past seven years. These range from gutting and refurbishing a large farmhouse; converting a derelict barn into two residential cottages; converting a modern residential property into two office suites; renovating and refurbishing more than 10 properties under the (now defunct) ‘Green Deal’ initiative; and, on top of all this, upgrades across the portfolio such as heating systems, insulation and replacement of windows.

Most of the charity’s rental properties are on Bridgegate, the former Great North Road that runs through Retford town centre. The charity’s ‘TH’ motif can be seen on properties across the town, a motif that Rabagliati has used liberally in the new hospital extension. The trust’s current estates office is also on Bridgegate, and just across the road lies its latest acquisition, the Newcastle Arms public house. Rabagliati hopes to convert the building into apartments with an expanded estates office on the ground floor. Existing charity properties lie on three sides of the Newcastle Arms plot, and the charity hopes to expand on them too. It’s a perfect example of how the trust seeks to make the most of its private rental estate. The number of properties has increased from 40 in the 1950s to about 60 today – but a new project will herald a significant change in the scale and scope of the trust’s activities.

Trinity House
©John Reynolds

Planning ahead

Over the next 10 years and beyond, 50 acres of the trust’s farmland is to be developed into a 196-dwelling development and new mixed commercial, retail and industrial units.

Bassetlaw District Council had already highlighted the site as prime development land in its local development plan. Working with local planners, Rabagliati and land agent Fisher German looked into how the site could work for the charity, culminating in a planning application, approved in December, which includes permission for a roundabout and access roads to
support the new housing and business estates.

The trust will sell the land on which the houses are built, and hopes the money it raises will secure the objectives of the charity in perpetuity; cash will be invested in to existing trust properties, and Rabagliati also expects to add more properties on existing trust land.

There is unlikely to be a change to the charity’s founding aims, but Rabagliati foresees a possible increase in the number of almshouses he manages.

“We can’t just continue to build a property empire. All we’ve done here is taken an opportunity that’s presented itself.”

Rabagliati doesn’t expect to still be in post to see the final plots filled, but he has no plans to leave. “I’m 60 now, but so long as I carry on enjoying the job, I see no reason to bail out early.”

The historic role of bailiff, and the trust’s spread of properties, makes Rabagliati one of the town’s most recognisable figures, but it’s the sheer variety of work that appeals most. “Being responsible for such a substantial charity in the town with such respect gives me a lot of joy. I get to have a lot of autonomy in this job, and while it’s a responsibility, it’s also an absolute privilege.”

Technically, Rabagliati works 20 hours a week. “Our office is only open in the mornings, so that more or less frames my working hours – but I can’t expect professional advisers just to work mornings. And any plan I have for the day can quickly change when I check the inbox.” 
Trinity House
©John Reynolds

Flying high

Most of Rabagliati’s career prior to Trinity Hospital was in the RAF, as evidenced in the pictures on his office walls. His first post-RAF civilian job was as administrator for Sheffield Cathedral before he joined Trinity Hospital in December 2008. “In the RAF I was an administration officer, a title that covered a range of responsibilities from people, property, budget management, logistics and training; we had every range of FM requirement from cleaning and catering to M&E. It was there that I latched on to the fact that I could put a professional tag to all this work.”

On becoming bailiff, Rabagliati joined the BIFM. Today, he is Sheffield Network coordinator for the Northern Region and helps run group events. He describes a recent visit to Carillion’s Sheffield offices thus: “a great operation, and the way they run it hugely impressive – but it’s chalk and cheese in the extreme!”

On 12th April, Rabagliati himself is playing host when members are invited to see the Trinity Hospital first hand. (See p.41 for details.)

The scale of the charity’s activities may soon be expanding, but Bob Rabagliati still has one primary objective in mind.

“The logic of the exercise during my tenure as bailiff is to make sure that I leave my successor with an even better legacy than my predecessor left me.”

Becoming brethren
The founding aims of the charity remain in place. Since 1671 more than 500 local gentlemen have been given brethren status “within a Christian community”. Only when they can no longer fend for themselves do they leave their allotted cottage. Applicants to become a new member of the brethren:
  • Must be male bachelors or widowers;
  • Must be over the age of 50;
  • Must be of good character;
  • Must be of poor or modest means,
  • Must be able to look after themselves; and
  • Must have a connection to Retford or the surrounding area.
With its aims and customs having echoed throughout the generations, most Retford residents know of the charity and many have had family members who have either worked for it or received its hospitality.

Staffing the charity
The Trinity Hospital Estates Trust is run by five part-time staff under the direction of a ‘master governor’, the charity’s single trustee. Throughout its 350-year existence, as per John Darrel’s instructions, this post has been filled by the sub-dean of Lincoln  – currently Canon John Patrick. All staff are part-time, including the bailiff. Assisting Bob Rabagliati are:
  • Liz Kirton, administration officer;
  • David Bean, accounts administrator;
  • Helen Lems, Matron (based at the hospital for the brethren); and
  • Canon Dick Lewis, Chaplain to the Brethren. (The chaplain officiates daily services for the brethren in the hospital’s chapel.)