The Charity Commission has ordered the Wimbledon and Putney Commons Conservators to take steps to determine whether the charity has failed to secure £1.5m of potential extra income as a result of the failure of the trustees to follow the requirements of the Charities Act relating to land sales.
The south London charity, which looks after 1,140 acress of common land, granted rights to create an access road across Putney Common, known as an easement, to Wandsworth Borough Council for £350,000 in 2010. The road leads to the site of the former Putney Hospital, which the council is developing into a primary school and 24 flats.
Easements are considered under the same provisions as land sales in the Charities Act 2011, which means the charity was legally obliged to get a qualified surveyors’ report, which it failed to do.
A retrospective survey, commissioned earlier this year by dissatisfied trustees who joined the charity after the deal was complete, estimated the easement was worth £1.9m, although this estimate is disputed by other board members.
A Charity Commission spokesman said it had opened a compliance case into the charity and issued an action plan, which included obtaining a qualified surveyors’ report that was acceptable to all trustees.
The deeds for the easement, which the trustees saw and signed, say the survey was completed in accordance with the Charities Act 2011.
Negotiations over an easement began in 2008 when the NHS intended to revive the hospital, which closed in 1998, as a clinic; but this project fell through because of a lack of funds.
Before the NHS sold the hospital site to the council – but after it had announced it would not be building the clinic – it had agreed to buy the easement for a new access road for £250,000.
The council eventually paid £350,000 for the easement in a deal struck in 2010 and completed in 2014. The deal was completed despite an email to the charity from the surveyors Drivers Jonas in 2008 suggesting a starting value of £775,000.
When five new trustees were elected in March this year, three – including Nick Evans, who had unsuccessfully taken the trustees to court over whether they had the right to grant the easement – questioned the deal. "We asked to see the valuations that they’d been quoting and the qualified surveyors’ report, but there was none," said Evans, who resigned last month.
"They said it was with the solicitors, or the chartered surveyors who advised them, and we went round in circles for the best part of eight weeks, and then it became very clear that there was no valuation."
The three trustees - Evans, John Cameron and vice-chair Shirley Gillbe, who made up the majority of the charity’s audit and risk committee - commissioned their qualified surveyors’ report from surveyors Montagu Evans, which based its £1.9m valuation on the principle that they could expect to receive around 40 per cent of the value of the site if the easement is granted - the so-called marriage value.
However, the other trustees, included three Whitehall-appointed trustees who were in post at the time of the deal, do not recognise the validity of this qualified surveyors’ report. They argue that the group of trustees who commissioned it did not have the power to do so, and that the results are not valid because it focuses only on the second deal, when the land was actually transferred, rather than on the earlier agreement with the NHS.
Evans said he believed the trustees had been "very leant on" by Wandsworth Borough Council to accept a lower price.
A council spokesman denied in a statement it had pressured the trustees, describing Evans’s claims as "fanciful", "untenable" and "extraordinary".
A spokesman for Wimbledon and Putney Commons Conservators said in a statement: "The trustees involved in the original decision to grant the easement secured the services and acted on advice from both solicitors and qualified surveyors.
"However, they did not...obtain a full qualified surveyors report that satisfied the conditions of the Charities Act 2011."