MUSSELBURGH Racecourse staff are threatening to walk out on its famous Ladies Day following a spectacular breakdown in working relationships.
Other prestigious events at the course, which now attracts record crowds totalling 70,000 a year, are also at risk from the threat of industrial action on race days.
Staff are upset because they believe their pay is falling behind their counterparts’ at other racecourses and they have been stripped of their bonuses despite Musselburgh’s success.
They are also unhappy with the board, led by local councillor John Caldwell, which oversees the work of the course.
Two motions of no confidence have been passed by staff in his leadership but he continues to have the support of Labour-led East Lothian Council.
Musselburgh has gone from strength to strength as a racing venue since it was rescued from financial trouble by the local authority. It has been awarded five-star visitor status by Visit Scotland and now brings in £6 million a year.
But it has been hit by a series of internal problems including being stripped of its prestigious Investors in People status.
Now the British Horseracing Authority, which oversees all venues hosting race meetings, says it will not issue a licence beyond the summer until it has received reassurances about its budget arrangements for next year.
At the same time, there has been an almost complete breakdown in the working relationship between the horse racing industry professionals and local councillors who make up the board which oversees the running of the racecourse.
John Prideaux, chairman of the Lothian Racing Syndicate (LRS), which represents the racing industry professionals, says the situation is “catastrophic” and “the very future of East Lothian’s sporting crown jewel is at risk”.
It is understood that the LRS representatives are refusing to attend meetings with the councillors unless they are provided with written agendas in advance.
The racecoure stands on common good land but most of the buildings are owned by the council and its operations are overseen under a unique arrangement by a board made up of industry professionals and local councillors. The board, the Musselburgh Joint Racing Committee, is made up of three racing representatives and four councillors, with a councillor acting as chairperson. The councillors have a built-in majority which allows them to veto any proposals to which they object.
A lawyer was hired to carry out an independent investigation into staff complaints about the board. The report is understood to have concluded that there were grounds to some of the complaints, but it was shelved.
Cllr Caldwell said the complaints now being raised by Mr Prideaux were “totally unfounded” and part of an attempt to force him out ahead of May’s council election.
Mr Prideaux said staff had suffered “several years of growing disillusionment” and were frustrated at a “complete lack of transparency” in the board’s decision making. The course has 15 full-time staff and several hundred casual workers on race days.
The course lost its Investors in People status – a nationally recognised staff management standard – in 2014 due to issues with its governance procedures.
Mr Prideaux said he was speaking out in a “last-ditch effort to protect the future of the racecourse” and called for experienced, skilled and independent directors to be brought in.
“Cllr Caldwell has been supported by Labour councillors in his role as chairman of MJRC despite the council’s leader and chief executive being warned repeatedly that under his chairmanship the course is heading towards disaster,” said Mr Prideaux.
Cllr Caldwell was appointed chairman of the MJRC board after the 2012 council elections.
Mr Prideaux, a retired RAF group captain, said the course “has performed exceptionally well” under the executive team led by Bill Farnsworth and had a “good and positive” relationship with the council.
“Cllr Caldwell appears determined to destroy everything that has been created here, and sadly the leadership of the council appear willing to allow that,” Mr Prideaux added.
But Cllr Caldwell hit back, saying: “They’ve tried to remove me through various ways unsuccessfully – now they’re questioning my credibility and integrity.”
Decisions at the course are made in a “democratic” way, he said, and recorded by a professional council minute taker.
Cllr Caldwell said: “The racecourse was run into the ground and if it wasn’t for East Lothian Council bailing it out, it would’ve been closed a long time ago.
“Since then, it has improved greatly and gone from strength to strength. We councillors are trying to guarantee that and make sure that investment is secure.”
The stakes are high, with the MJRC paying full commercial rent on the racecourse building to the council, amounting to £120,000 a year.
GMB Scotland union organiser Barry Fletcher said he had issued a pay claim in line with other racecourses to Cllr Caldwell, but was still waiting for talks.
“Staff grievances have been growing for a while and haven’t been addressed,” Mr Fletcher added.
“I had a meeting with Mr Caldwell a few weeks ago on these grievances and Mr Caldwell reluctantly met us and heard the staff grievances.
“However, Mr Caldwell was supposed to come back and he hasn’t as yet.”
Mr Fletcher described morale at Musselburgh as “very low”, adding: “I will be consulting with GMB members at Musselburgh Racecourse with a view to run a consultative ballot for some sort of industrial action if Mr Caldwell doesn’t come up with some answers on grievances and issues of pay.”
A British Horseracing Authority spokesman would not comment on events at Musselburgh Racecourse, but the body is known to have only granted Musselburgh a temporary licence which expires in June this year.
Any extension is dependent on this year’s accounts and next year’s budget being signed-off by the MJRC.
The course cannot operate without a licence though temporary versions can be awarded on a rolling basis.
East Lothian Council said an investigation has been launched into issues at the course – to be led by Cllr Caldwell.
A council spokeswoman said: “East Lothian Council recognises the contribution Musselburgh Racecourse makes to the economy of East Lothian and will continue to work closely with the Musselburgh Joint Racing Committee to promote and position the racecourse as one of the country’s top attractions.
“Whilst the Council is aware of some concerns expressed by the Lothian Racing Syndicate (LRS) an investigation by the Musselburgh Joint Racing Committee, under the chairmanship of Cllr John Caldwell into these concerns is currently ongoing and it would be inappropriate to comment further until the investigation is concluded.”