Neil Robertson, head of the Charity Commission's specialist casework division

In a series on the regulator's senior staff, Robertson talks to Paul Jump about making tricky decisions

Neil Robertson, head of the Charity Commission's specialist casework division
Neil Robertson, head of the Charity Commission's specialist casework division

When on his death in 1977 eccentric arts collector Denys Bower left Chiddingstone Castle in Kent to a trust, he provided no funds for its upkeep. After running it as a museum for 25 years, its trustees decided they had no option but to sell a valuable painting by 17th-century artist Sir Peter Lely, and applied to the Charity Commission for permission.

Neil Robertson was head of the commission's advice and orders division - now the specialist casework division - at the time. "We thought it was better for the charity to sell one painting than to fold," he says. "But there was considerable outrage at both local and national level. Some museums thought it set a precedent and the Attorney General got involved."

But the sale went ahead and the painting fetched about £1.5m. "I visited the castle recently and it was nice to see what a difference it made," says Robertson.

He joined the commission straight from school in the mid-1970s and was assigned to the now defunct Official Custodians department, which bought and sold investments on behalf of charities. He joined the forerunner of the specialist casework division, known as SCW, in 1992, becoming its head 10 years ago.

The division essentially gives legal permission for things that charities with annual incomes of less than £5m would otherwise be unable to do. Routine casework was hived off two years ago to Charity Commission Direct, leaving SCW to deal with the more complicated issues.

The division has 53 staff, two-thirds of whom - including Robertson - are based in Taunton, Somerset. A Liverpool branch retains some regional caseworkers and has a specialist team for NHS charities and professional bodies. Taunton specialises in armed forces, schools and education charities.

SCW's Collaborative Working and Mergers Unit is also in Taunton. It encourages collaborative working, but stops short of encouraging mergers. "It might seem obvious that two charities doing a similar thing in a similar area should merge, but that is not always true when you look at the beneficiaries and the types of organisations they are," says Robertson.

But he confirms there has been a lot of interest in mergers since the recession started, and says this is one reason why the division's workload has risen 40 per cent in the past year, forcing him to examine how the division can "work smarter". Other reasons include the rise in charities seeking permission to use endowment funds or raise funds in new ways. The division has also had to distribute the assets of several schools that have recently become insolvent.

But disposal of property - such as almshouses, village halls and recreation grounds - remains the SCW's trickiest area. "We get only about five or six a year and they are often relatively small charities, but they tend to be very controversial in their communities," Robertson says.

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