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Reconsider Shropshire land sale, Commissioners urged  

24 November 2023

BBC

The land in Benthall, near Telford, in Shropshire

The land in Benthall, near Telford, in Shropshire

CAMPAIGNERS seeking to overturn a decision by the Church Commissioners to sell land for a housing development, instead of creating a wildlife haven (News, 3 November), say that the deal was seriously flawed and has harmed the Commissioners’ reputation.

The land at Benthall, near Telford, in Shropshire, was originally sold to a community group, but, after the sale closed, the Commissioners accepted a higher bid from a developer, who plans to build up to 100 houses on the site. The Commissioners later said that it was their legal duty to obtain the best price, which meant, in effect, that the villagers had been gazumped.

In a letter to the Commissioners last week, asking for a rethink of the decision, the group accepts that the officials were not acting as “any kind of money-grabbing pantomime villain”, but say: “It is clear from what has happened that something is deeply wrong with the process by which the sale has been conducted, which has resulted in damage to your reputation as well as to our community.

“We ask you to consider the possibility that withdrawing from the sale of the land to Boningale Homes would give you time and opportunity to review your procedures so that your social, ethical and environmental values can be more accurately reflected within the constraints of your fiduciary duties under charity law. . .

“We believe that these actions are damaging the reputation of the Church Commission, the Church of England and the Diocese of Hereford. It appears to be damaging the work that the Diocese of Hereford does locally through its local team Broseley Benefice by fracturing trust and undermining the social fabric of this small community. Members of the Diocese of Hereford, Broseley Benefice and some of the congregation at All Saints church have distanced themselves from these actions and from the Church Commission.”

It concludes: “The overwhelming response we have heard to the conduct of the CC in this episode has been: ‘It might be legal but it’s not moral’, or ‘It might be legal but it’s certainly not ethical.’”

They note that, last July, the Commissioners published a climate action plan that states that the Fourth and Fifth Marks of Mission of the Anglican Communion are “at the heart of our responsible investment values and approach”. The Fifth Mark of Mission is “to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth”.

They also point out that, in April, the Commissioners created a nature reserve at Bartonsham Meadows, near Hereford. At the time, the Commissioners’ senior asset manager, Guy Webb, said that it provided “a unique opportunity to work with the local community, improve biodiversity, and help meet our net zero aspirations”.

The Commissioners confirm that the letter has been received, but decline to add anything to the statement that they issued last week, which ends: “The tender and bidding process run by our agents, was both full and transparent. We do not encourage ‘gazumping’.”

The Council for the Preservation of Rural England called on the Commissioners to honour their deal with the community group. Its Shropshire planning spokesman, Charles Green, said: “This modern morality tale could be construed as having about it a whiff of greed — one of the seven deadly sins; and the love of money — which St Paul told us is the root of all evil — albeit couched in the mistaken belief that charity rules require the maximum value to be wrung out of property transactions in all circumstances.”

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