Local church leaders have acted “morally, legally and with integrity” over the sale of a former school and a local trust only had itself to blame for its failure to buy the site, the Bishop of Leeds has declared.
The Rt Rev Nick Baines was responding to criticism from local volunteers who wanted to build affordable housing on the site 0f the former primary school in Langthwaite, Arkengarthdale.
However, the property school was sold to a private bidder, with members of the Upper Dales Community Land Trust saying they were not made aware in advance of a provision which would have allowed it to undercut other bidders for the site.
In an open letter, the trust last week called on the bishop 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.
But in his response the church leader said that, as the trust knew, he had no authority or power to intervene in this matter.
He added that Swaledale with Arkengarthdale Parochial Church Council (PCC), which sold the site, was a charity and had a legal obligation to obtain best value when making dispositions.
The Bishop pointed out that Upper Dales Community Land Trust (UDCLT) was not currently registered as a charity and the trust was “fully aware” of the legal requirements that the PCC could only sell for a lower price to another charity, if to do so was in the charity’s best interests — and had noted this in a letter to the PCC ahead of the sale.
He added: “It is therefore very clear that the PCC cannot be guilty of withholding information (as you allege) when the UDCLT had itself included the information in its offer letter to the PCC.
“UDCLT were clearly aware and had taken legal advice on it before submitting the bid.”
The Bishop also denied that the sale had been rushed through.
“The site was handed to the PCC in October 2019 and it was put up for sale in December 2019.
“The parish council had put in place a Community Asset Order and this was triggered in December 2019 alongside the decision to put the old school building up for sale.
“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.”
The Bishop said that during this time the PCC was incurring costs of £600 a month, which the UDCLT had declined to contribute towards at the time.
He added: “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.”
The Bishop also denied the trust had been kept in the dark, saying the PCC had 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 Bishop added: “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.
“The proceeds arising from the sale, as determined by the objects of the closed school charity, should be used “for or in aid of the promotion or assistance of any ecclesiastical purpose“ or “any ecclesiastical purpose within the meaning of the Measure”.
“In reality that means it is available for the PCC to use them in the local community to promote the mission of the Phrases like ‘community asset stripping seem misplaced when the buyers (with generational family ties to the area) will become part of the community and have plans to bring local employment through their existing outdoor activities business.
“Their purchase also safeguards the future of the building as part of the local community fabric. These were all factors which were considered by the PCC when considering the offers that were at the asking price.”
In response, Stephen Stubbs, chairman of UDCLT, said Bishop Baines seemed “irritated” the trust had brought the issue to his attention, despite an email from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s office advising them to do so.
“He informs us ‘as you well know, I have no authority or power to intervene in this matter’. We had no prior knowledge of this and it would appear neither did the Archbishop’s office.
“We are a voluntary group with no legal expertise, unlike the church with its vast resources. His response, despite his long-held concerns about affordable housing in rural areas, portrays no compassion for our position.
“Instead of helping us steer a way through, church officials and their lawyers treated us with ‘the same status as other bidders’.
“He says he remains steadfastly committed to ensuring that affordable housing is provided in rural areas. It is four and a half years since he raised his fears in the House of Lords and his current response provides little comfort to young families urgently seeking homes in Arkengarthdale.
Mr Stubbs said the Bishop’s response posed more questions than it answered.
“If the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Bishop of Leeds have no authority in this matter then who took the key decisions in the matter, and under what authority, including putting the school on the open market, deciding not to discuss our charity status with us before accepting the highest offer and advising the PCC they were legally bound to accept the highest bidder?”
Mr Stubbs said the trust was never asked to make a contribution to the upkeep of the redundant school.
He added:”UDCLT has volunteered to meet the upkeep costs, until its charity registration is confirmed, if the agreed sale is halted and its £150,000 offer for the premises reconsidered.”
You can read the Bishop’s response in full here.