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Octavia Hill

02 November 2006

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 proper".

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.

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