The Church of England has been accused of withholding vital information from a charitable trust which could have paved the way for affordable homes being built in a threatened Yorkshire Dales community.
It is claimed representatives of the owners did not make the Upper Dales Community Land Trust aware in advance of a provision which would have allowed it to undercut other bidders for the Arkengarthdale School site.
In an open letter, the trust is calling on the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Rev Nick Baines, to block an agreed sale to a commercial developer on the basis it should have been informed in advance that it needed to register as a charity.
The trust asks in the letter: “Was it not incumbent on the church, with benevolent aims and legal expertise, to give us advance notice of potential obstacles? Or was maximum profit the mission all along?”
Members of Swaledale with Arkengarthdale Parochial Church Council (PCC) were instructed they were legally bound to accept a £185,000 bid from a commercial developer for the school which was forced to close after pupil numbers fell to five.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, the local MP, has called on the church to reconsider the decision which the Archbishop of Canterbury has admitted he is powerless to change.
The trust said it was only informed by the PCC it could have sold to a registered charity for a lower price once its members had voted to accept the highest offer on church lawyers’ advice.
Andrew Bedford, vice chairman of the PCC, has admitted in an e-mail to the trust: “The PCC were made fully aware of the fact we could sell to another charity with purposes the same or similar, but not narrower, to our own, at less than best price.
“UDCLT are a not for profit company not a charity, although you hoped to become one in the future, so this option was not available to us.
“Having charitable aims doesn’t make a company a charity. We therefore had to sell for the best price.”
He added that it would be “morally wrong” to abort the sale “at this late stage”, despite mounting criticism and allegations of hypocrisy against the Church.
Stephen Stubbs, chairman of UDCLT, has called on Bishop Baines to review the case, reconsider the trust’s offer and reveal the intended use of any proceeds from the sale of a property bought for £325 in 1933 for the benefit of parishioners.
He said: “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.
“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. It makes all their grand expressions of concern about affordable homes in the community appear empty rhetoric.
“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?”
“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.”
The office of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has set up a commission in response to the housing crisis, suggested the trust take the case up with the Leeds and Ripon Diocese.
Richmondshire Today has contacted the Leeds Diocese for a response.