THE Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, has written to the PCC of a church in his constituency to query the sale of a former church school.
A group of villagers in the Yorkshire Dales hamlet of Arkengarthdale, near Richmond, wish to convert the buildings into affordable homes, to help stem the flow out of the area of young people who cannot match the prices paid by outsiders.
Swaledale with Arkengarthdale PCC has been told, however, that it is legally bound to accept the highest offer for Arkengarthdale C of E Primary School, which has been made by a private bidder.
The chairman of the not-for-profit Upper Dales Community Land Trust (UDCLT), Stephen Stubbs, said: “The decision seems to contradict the aims of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s commission to examine housing, church, and community, which states: ‘We have land and resources that can be used to help meet the need for more affordable housing.’ In this case, it appears his vision to encourage and actively help affordable housing to be created from their estate is not borne out by reality as the exact opposite is happening, with his prophecy being sacrificed in the interests of short-term profit.”
The school, which the PCC bought for £325 in 1933, closed a year ago, after the number of pupils fell to five. The Trust’s plans to convert it into three two-bedroom and one one-bedroom homes gained support from the parish council, the Yorkshire Dales National Parks Authority, and Richmondshire District Council which pledged £150,000 from its affordable housing fund to buy the site. An undisclosed buyer, however, has offered £185,000.
Mr Stubbs, a former pupil at the school, said: “The Church has taken a legal view, but not considered its moral obligation to the people of Arkengarthdale. The school was bought through local people for the benefit of local people. We are extremely concerned. The school building is the last chance to provide affordable housing to secure a more sustainable and brighter future for the community of Arkengarthdale.”
The parish’s population has declined by 14 per cent in seven years to 199 residents, almost two-thirds of whom are over 60. The national average is 24 per cent. Only 14 per cent are under 30. According to the 2011 census, 69 of its 174 homes were occupied full-time; the remainder are either holiday-lets or second homes.
A North Yorkshire County and Richmondshire District councillor and member of the UDCLT, Yvonne Peacock, said: “Without homes for our local families, how can our Dales have a sustainable future? We need people to live and work in Arkengarthdale to support our businesses, farming, and tourism.
“I am so very disappointed our offer to purchase the school was rejected. Our proposal provided an ideal way forward to provide affordable homes and preserve a community for future generations.”
The Vicar of Swaledale, the Revd Caroline Hewlett, said that the PCC had no choice. “We were bound by charity law. We are well aware of the problems of housing in the Dales, and tried everything, but our hands were tied. We are very supportive of what the Trust wants to do, and looked to see if there were ways round it, but we are bound to take the highest price.”
A Lambeth Palace spokesperson said: “The Archbishop’s Commission on Housing, Church and Community is currently looking into a number of the issues relating to how charities and churches can best use their buildings. The recommendations from the commission, expected next year, will be a substantive contribution to this debate.”
A spokesman for the diocese of Leeds said that it was aware of the circumstances of the sale, and that the PCC had “acted in accordance with the duties and requirements imposed upon trustees by charity law”.