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Trust accuses diocese of withholding information over school sale

04 September 2020

Jill Lundberg

The chairman of the UCDLT, Stephen Stubbs, outside the redundant Arkengarthdale C of E school

The chairman of the UCDLT, Stephen Stubbs, outside the redundant Arkengarthdale C of E school

THE Church of England has been accused of withholding vital information from a charitable trust which could have paved the way for the building of affordable homes in a struggling Yorkshire Pennine village.

The Upper Dales Community Land Trust’s (UDCLT’s) plan to buy the former church primary school in Arkengarthdale, near Richmond, was thwarted when the PCC was told that it was legally bound to accept a higher offer from a commercial bidder (News, 21 August). The PCC says that it was later told that, if the trust was a charity, its offer could have been accepted.

Now the Trust has written an open letter to the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, asking him to block the sale, as it should have been informed in advance that it needed to register as a charity.

In the letter, Stephen Stubbs, who chairs the Trust, writes: “We would have been willing to pay for the upkeep of the premises in the few months it would take to register as a charity, but instead the Church kept us in the dark, pressed ahead with a swift sale, and presented the PCC with a fait accompli. It makes all their grand expressions of concern about affordable homes in the community appear empty rhetoric.

“Why did the Church rush through this sale rather than give us time to register as a charity? Where there’s a will there’s a way, except where money is involved, it would seem.”

The Trust’s bid of £150,000, provided by Richmondshire District Council’s affordable-homes fund, had the support of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, who is the local MP. But it was topped by a private buyer’s offer of £185,000.

Mr Stubbs said: “The extra £35,000 they made on the deal is a drop in the ocean compared to the reputational damage it is doing to the Church of England. Where is the morality in allowing the sale to proceed without providing us with vital facts, and against the wishes of the community?”

He also reminded the Bishop about his comments in a House of Lords debate in April 2016, when he said: “My diocese covers vast and diverse rural areas. The issue that is constantly raised by those who live there is affordable housing for their children. If we end up with small rural communities without young people in them, which in some cases is what is happening, we will have a problem 20, 30, 40, or 50 years down the line.”

Mr Stubbs suggested that the diocese “currently stands accused of community asset-stripping”, and said: “The court of public opinion is already considering whether the Church has practised what it preaches in this case, and the indications point to a damning verdict.”

A diocesan spokesman said that the Bishop would respond to the letter “in due course”. He continued: “At no stage was anything withheld from UDCLT as they have alleged. Moreover, the offer letter from UDCLT expressly mentions the issue, saying that they had taken legal advice on whether the PCC was obliged to sell to the highest bidder. To now say they were not aware of the issue, or that the PCC had not been open with them, is simply not true.”

On Thursday, Bishop Baines wrote a robust response to the UDCLT, saying that it was untrue that the facility to sell to a charity at a lower price had been concealed by the PCC. Nor had the sale been rushed through.

“The site was handed to the PCC in October 2019 and it was put up for sale in December 2019. . . A public meeting was held in January 2020, at which discussions about charity law and the inability of the PCC to give the building away took place.

“All of this was done in an open and transparent way. The Community Asset Order gave the UDCLT ample time to prepare and register itself as a charity. During this time the PCC was incurring costs of £600 a month, costs which the UDCLT were asked if they wanted to contribute to, but declined.

“It seems strange that only now is there an apparent willingness to take on the burden of costs whilst charity status is sought, when the opportunity to do both at the very outset of this process was not taken. It is even stranger to lay the blame for this period of inactivity at the door of the PCC or the diocese.

“UDCLT was not kept in the dark; indeed, the PCC displayed a remarkable level of openness towards it. Once the property had been marketed the PCC received 8 offers, 5 of which were at the asking price. UDCLT were told that their offer was under the asking price and they were invited to increase their bid to match those which had been received. UDCLT specifically declined to increase its offer. No offer was accepted from any party until this had happened. UDCLT had every opportunity to increase its offer to match that of the other bidders.

“The PCC has discharged its obligations morally and legally, and I conclude has done so with integrity. I am grateful for the conscientious  way they have undertaken their duties.”

Bishop Baines writes that there are “good arguments” for a change in the charity law, “but a change cannot be wished into existence”.

Responding to Bishop Baines’s letter, the UDCLT denies ever having been asked to make a contribution to the redundant school’s upkeep. It also maintains that it was not helped by the Church to pursue a successful bid. “Instead of helping us steer a way through, church officials and their lawyers treated us with ‘the same status as other bidders’.”

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