THE Church Commissioners have been accused of allowing villagers in the diocese of Hereford to be gazumped by developers over the purchase of land that the community had wanted to turn into a wildlife reserve.
The Commissioners had accepted an offer from residents of Bethnall, near Telford, in Shropshire, to buy the land, but this was later dropped in favour of a higher bid from developers, which came after the sale deadline.
Members of the Floyer Lane Community Group had pooled their savings to bid for the site, which had been valued at about £300,000. One member of the group, Laura Davies, said that they had offered to buy it outright, but were told that “under no circumstances” could a bid be accepted outside the official tender process.
Days after putting in a sealed bid, the group were informed that they had been successful. “We were delighted,” Ms Davies said. “The paperwork was all going through, and we thought that was that.”
Weeks later, however, they were “shocked” to hear that a bid from the developer Boningale Homes, outside of the tender process, had been accepted. “They offered £100,000 more than our bid. We were gazumped,” she said. “Even after the Church told us they could not accept a bid outside the tender, they did this.”
The Parish Church of All Saints has distanced itself from the new deal, which could result in 100 new homes on the site. One of the churchwardens, Nick Wood, said that the land was owned by the Commissioners, not the parish. He wrote on the Broseley Benefice Facebook page: “Your local church has no connection with the Church Commissioners, we have no contact with them, and certainly no influence — and we won’t see any of the money from the sale either.”
He told the Church Times on Tuesday: “We couldn’t have done anything about it, even if we had known about it — which we didn’t until the Commissioners dropped us an email. It’s a very steeply sloping field, so good luck to the developer who wants to build on it. I talked to the diocese and they said: ‘Yes, the buggers did it to us as well.’ They are a law unto themselves. As far as they were concerned, they were dealing with a bit of their own land, and it was nothing to do with us.”
He continued: “Everyone, including the congregation, thought that it would have been far better as a nature reserve, but we in the local church have no more standing than anyone else in the community. The Commissioners said that they felt that they had a duty to get the best deal for the Church, but it still doesn’t make it taste any better, does it?”
Another member of the community group, Richard Smith, said: “The Church has probably done nothing legally wrong, but morally, they have — this is a Church we are talking about. We were just trying to do the right thing as a community.”
A spokesperson for Hereford diocese said: “The land is owned by the national Church Commissioners, and isn’t something that the local bishop, church, or diocese have any direct influence over. As a result, the Broseley parish, Hereford diocese, and the Bishop of Hereford have all encouraged the residents’ campaign group to work with Church Commissioners to fully understand the decision-making process, and have offered support to facilitate this conversation. This is now for Commissioners to make a response.”
A spokesperson for the Commissioners said this week: “We are aware that this sale process has been very frustrating for many members of the community. We have taken, and challenged, professional legal advice on this matter.
“As a charitable organisation, which exists to support the work and ministry of the Church of England, the Church Commissioners for England are required by law to achieve the best returns they prudently can from property transactions. That means that they are bound to take account of all bona fide offers and are unable simply to accept a significantly lower offer in order to support aims — however worthy — that are not within the Church Commissioners’ own charitable objects.
“The tender and bidding process run by our agents was both full and transparent. We do not encourage ‘gazumping’.”
A spokesperson for Church House later confirmed that the developer’s bid was received after the sealed-bid term expired.
The National Trust has also expressed concern about the proposed housing development, which would border the parkland of Benthall Hall, which is run by the Trust.
A spokesperson said on Thursday: “Due to its proximity and ecological value, we are concerned about the impact these proposals would have on the character and landscape of the estate. As a conservation charity, it is our duty to protect and preserve places of historic interest and natural beauty in our care, for the benefit of the nation.
“The land is home to some interesting and significant plant species. As such, it will be important to understand the impacts of the proposed development in the context of the natural environment. Whilst the proposal is in its early stages, we will keep a close eye and be an active voice as plans start to evolve.”