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Community groups in Wells and the Yorkshire Dales appeal over church building sales

27 November 2020

Creative Commons/Rodw

The east side of the Old Deanery at Wells, Somerset

The east side of the Old Deanery at Wells, Somerset

TWO community groups in conflict with their dioceses over the use of redundant church buildings are appealing to the Government to examine the Church’s apparent policy of selling properties for maximum profit ahead of community benefit.

Geraldine Peacock, who was appointed the first chair of the Charity Commission in 2004, is a founder member of a group wishing to convert the Old Deanery at Wells, Somerset, into a social hub, but the diocese of Bath & Wells is negotiating a higher price from a private buyer (News 31 July). She suggests that the Church is misinterpreting charity law for its own ends in claiming that it is compelled to accept the top price.

Also this year, the villagers of the remote Yorkshire Dales hamlet of Arkengarthdale were thwarted in their efforts to convert their former primary school into affordable housing, when Leeds diocese said that it was legally required to accept a higher bid (News, 21 August).

Ms Peacock said: “Diocesan councils use this interpretation as the reason for maximising their property assets in this way. It is not true that this means sell to the highest financial bidder.

“I was chair when the 2006 Charities Act went through Parliament, and subsequently the Charity Commission published a lot of guidance to tell people that to maximise your assets was a process that judges social value and financial return.

“We want Parliament to investigate, with the C of E, its property-disposal issues because they are exempt from legislation pertaining to local authorities.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury established a commission this year to examine the part played by the Church in community and housing, but, when Ms Peacock raised the Old Deanery case with his office, she was told that responsibility for properties lay with the diocese, and contact was closed (News, 28 August).

“I presumed the Archbishop would have a key role in trying to build unity and agreement throughout the Church of England,” she said. “I believe the Church, with all its resources, could lead the way in developing new community economies if we can only change the culture. We’re wanting to make this happen, and hope that Parliament can help not only change the law, but get the Church to engage in a modern way.”

Now, it has emerged that Leeds diocese is also trying to take control of the assets of another former school in North Yorkshire: the primary school in the village of Rathmell, near Settle, which closed in 2017 after more than 300 years and is now a community resource centre.

Stephen Stubbs, who chairs the Upper Dales Community Land Trust, which was outbid for Arkengarthdale school, said: “We thought ours may be an isolated case, but it has become clear [that] similar community asset-stripping is happening elsewhere. It would appear money is the only motivation: all the talk about the importance of communities and helping with the housing crisis is proving to be just empty rhetoric.”

At Rathmell, lawyers for Leeds diocese say that the charity trust running the school is no longer using it for “religious education purposes”; so it is entitled, under the 1996 Education Act, to expropriate its assets to use for its own religious work. Jacky Frankland, the charity’s treasurer, accused the Church of “trying to snatch away our little charity in pursuit of their own greed”.

She said: “The trustees and volunteers have worked tirelessly since the closure to secure the long-term future of the school building as a thriving village amenity, whilst securing financial sustainability for the enrichment of all members of our community.

“Many other little villages have had their hearts ripped out by a diocese. Threatening and bullish they may be, but we have right on our side and will not surrender. Rathmell school is ours, and always will be.”

In an open letter appealing for support, Rosemary Hyslop, who chairs the trust, said: “We feel outraged at their malicious intentions to seize our charity property, their use of thinly veiled threats to bully us, and their unchristian behaviour. We ask for your backing to help us overcome this peril, particularly this year when we, like so many communities, rely on each other to get through the pandemic.

“The trustees and volunteers have worked tirelessly since the school closed in 2017 to create a safe, warm and welcoming environment within the school building which is now a thriving village amenity that has offered many classes, hosted social events, and provided homemade takeaway food between lockdowns this year to benefit all members of our community whilst securing financial sustainability to keep and protect the schoolhouse and school building.

“The diocese is ruthlessly attempting to seize our charity’s assets to offset their financial mismanagement but with your support we hope they will not be allowed to wrongly gain funds and leave our village bereft.”

The cause has the backing of the former Home Secretary and Yorkshire MP Lord Blunkett, who said: “It is eight years since a Private Member’s Bill was piloted through Parliament to place emphasis on social value and not just monetary gain, including with the land and premises and the development of community facilities.

“Regrettably, not all those operating in the social sector or delivering services have got the message: maximising financial return rather than long-term community and social benefit. My hope is one day we will not need to remind the most ardent accountant that there is an alternative to a simple and outdated ‘bottom line’.”

In a statement, Leeds diocese said: “A closed school site is not ‘church property’ as such as it is usually held upon specific trust related to education, and application of these trusts once the school is closed raises a number of issues which have to be resolved. Such a trust cannot simply be ignored because it has become inconvenient to the local population who may wish to repurpose the building from education to wider social use.

“The Diocese must comply with charity law and that is the case in both these circumstances. To do anything else and to suggest that the Diocese is seeking to act otherwise is improper. The Diocese is committed to positive conversations with the local trustees of any closed school site, including those at Rathmell. These are ongoing and all views are welcome, not only those of an interested minority.

“The Diocese did not benefit financially from the sale of the former Arkengarthendale School and it is false to suggest otherwise, nor would it benefit from any potential sale of the former Rathmell School. The matter of such a sale has not been raised, but in that eventuality any monies would be reinvested in children’s education within our many schools in the diocese.”

A statement from the diocese of Bath & Wells said: “Redundant church property, such as churches, are covered by church law. Church administrative buildings are usually covered by secular charity law. We are looking forward to the recommendations of the Commission on Housing, Church and Community due in early 2021, because church law around the sale of church property is complex.

“The sale of administrative buildings is usually regulated by the Charity Act 2011 and helpful operating guidance is issued by the Charity Commission, but any further clarification of this guidance would be very welcome.

“The Trustees are aware that wider considerations can be taken into account when disposing of charitable property, including issues of community benefit, and these are already in consideration in relation to the sale of the Old Deanery, whilst ensuring that the Trustees meet their duty to ensure the sale serves both the mission and ministry of the Church, and the people of Somerset.”

A Lambeth Palace spokesperson said: “The Archbishop set up the Commission on Housing, Church and Community in April 2019. Work has been ongoing since then and the Commission will report back early in 2021. Commissioners have been in touch with the Charity Commission over the importance of charity law in this area. The decentralised structures of the Church of England mean the Archbishop has no direct control over decisions taken by individual dioceses and churches.”

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