ANDREAS WHITTAM SMITH, the First Church Estates Commissioner,
responded to concern over the proposed sale of the Octavia Hill Estates to a
commercial property developer. He answered questions raised by
Joseph Brook Field (Blackburn), Christine McMullen (Derby),
and Adrian Greenwood, April Alexander, Vasantha Granadoss, Peter Haddock,
and the Revd Paul Collier, all from Southwark.
Mr Whittam Smith said that the Commissioners were not suitable owners of the
estates, as they did not have access to the funding available to housing
associations and companies. They had "a clear legal duty to manage their
investments to support the mission of the Church," he said. Legally, they could
not sell them at less than their value.
A series of supplementary questions provoked at times a terse response.
The Bishop of Southwark, Dr Tom Butler, drew applause when he
suggested that the duty of a charity was not to maximise but optimise its
assets. All charities wrestled with this question, responded Mr Whittam Smith:
he was not disposed to ignore the Oxford judgment on the matter.
Dr Christina Baxter (Southwell & Nottingham) wanted to know
whether the assets committee was answerable to anyone other than God. The
Church Commissioners were directly responsible to Parliament, Mr Whittam Smith
confirmed. He revealed that there had been a wide gap "of some millions"
between the top bid and the third bid.
The Bishop of Hulme, the Rt Revd Stephen Lowe, believed that there
was an increasing anxiety about the governance of the Church Commisioners: was
it time for some kind of review? Mr Whittam Smith thought that might be "very
Dr Butler asked whether Mr Whittam Smith was still confident about
availability for the London poor and for key workers. All final bids had given
assurance on key workers, said Mr Whittam Smith.