The phone rang and I heard a woman’s voice. "I’ve got a cracking building," she said. It was 8.30am, I’d had zero caffeine, and a hellish commute. "That’s marvellous," I replied. "Lucky you." "No," she said, trying to hold back her tears. "It’s literally cracking. The brick walls are coming away at the corners. I’ve not slept a wink."
It was just another day in the office of our property advice charity the Ethical Property Foundation. And another case of an over-worked stressed-out miracle worker who didn’t come into the sector to learn about structural engineering. And, yes, it was another sparkling example of a local authority community asset transfer that came with no funding for premises costs.
I wanted to hug her, but more practically I advised her to email us with the details. It’s so sad. Are we really known in the outside world as the mug sector? On average, if a charity has an income of less than £350,000 a year, it is unlikely anyone specific will manage its property and it will just be tacked onto someone’s day job. Yet right across the country, voluntary groups are being tasked to take on community halls, parks, libraries and even lighthouses – we’ve had two so far, plus a mediaeval labyrinth. Yet the need to upskill local people taking on this responsibility remains urgent. Some councils are brilliant but frankly it’s a patchy picture and often it is the poorer authorities that can give the least help.
Property education is vital, not just for charities with buildings but also for funders and local authorities. Every year the foundation saves a number of organisations from going bust as a result of poor property management - in the process saving local authority landlords and funders from becoming unsecured creditors. The bottom line? The risk is not just ours, it should be shared.
In our 2014 Charity Property Matters Survey, close to half the respondents considered their premises as the biggest threat long-term. It found that more than 40 per cent experience difficulty obtaining core funding to cover their premises costs and almost half would consider sharing space to reduce costs.
This month we launched our 2016 survey, once again in partnership with the Charity Commission, to help establish the sector’s property needs and challenges. If we know the true extent of the property problems charities face, we can have a properly informed discussion with local government, the property industry and funders, and push for change. Then, we might end up with the right type of cracking buildings.
Antonia Swinson is the chief executive of the Ethical Property Foundation
The 2016 Charity Property Matters Survey only takes five minutes to complete, and the results will be used to develop tailored guidance and support on property matters for charities.