The Charity Commission received a total of 146,777 phone calls, emails and letters in 2013/14, say its annual accounts. Paula Sussex, its chief executive, has said that about a third of enquiries from charities concern land or land-related issues. The commission has been unable to clarify how many of the total enquiries came from charities (rather than members of the public), but land and property can be an onerous and complex issue, and it clearly worries the sector: in a 2014 survey of 300 charities by the Ethical Property Foundation, 45 per cent said they thought property issues were the greatest risk to their long-term survival.
However, a spokeswoman for the commission says that three-quarters of the property enquiries are not regulatory issues it is obliged to deal with, but general questions or requests for advice that it does not have the capacity to handle. In the past, the commission would tell those enquirers to seek legal advice; but in February it began directing charities with non-regulatory property questions to the EPF, a charity set up in 2004 to offer advice about or training in property issues to voluntary bodies.
Antonia Swinson, chief executive of the EPF, says that in the fortnight after the announcement was posted it received about two dozen enquiries – about twice the number it would usually have expected – and traffic to its website tripled. She says the EPF can cope if demand rises further. "The need is out there, and the foundation is geared up to meet it," she says. "It's still a pilot in the sense that we're seeing how it goes: we set it up at the beginning of February and we'll assess it in three months' time."
The commission wants to reduce the burden, and the EPF is willing to help, but the charity will not be paid by the commission, nor will there be any formal contract. The EPF has thus joined about 50 umbrella and capacity-building charities that are considered "partner bodies" by the commission.
Other partner bodies include well-known groups such as the Charity Finance Group, Locality and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, which pass on regulatory alerts from the commission to their members and might provide other advice and services.
The commission is clearly keen to get the most out of these partnerships, but a spokesman points out that no activity undertaken by a partner replaces a statutory function of the Charity Commission. Its partner strategy "is being reviewed to ensure it meets the commission's regulatory and resourcing priorities", she says.