A former Charity Commission chair has accused the Church of England of misinterpreting charity law and freezing out community groups from purchasing its redundant assets.
Geraldine Peacock, who became the first chair of the commission in 2004, is among those claiming that the church is “riding roughshod over community interests” by insisting that properties must be sold to the highest bidder.
Peacock is chair of the Old Deanery Project, which has been trying to purchase from the church a building of the same name in Wells, Somerset, to be used for community benefit as an art gallery or museum.
But she said the church had rejected the project’s £1.25m offer in favour of a higher bid from a private bidder.
Peacock questioned whether the church had misinterpreted charity law for its own ends in claiming it was bound to accept the top price.
“Diocesan councils use this interpretation as the reason for maximising their property assets in this way,” she said. “It is not true that this means sell to the highest financial bidder.”
She said the Charity Commission had published guidance telling charities that maximising assets was a process that judges both social value and financial return.
Peacock said she was calling for Parliament to look into the matter.
The Old Deanery Project is a community interest company made up of local residents backed by councils and heritage groups.
It wants to create an art gallery or museum of international standing, restaurant, café and shop, and serve as a vital social hub with initial funding through residential development by a partner and returning a profit after three years.
But it said the Bath & Wells Diocese was refusing to engage with the community project and was instead “entering into negotiations with a mysterious private developer” who had outbid the group.
Separately, the Upper Dales Community Land Trust, a charitable company that aims to provide affordable housing for people in north Yorkshire, said it had tried to purchase a redundant village school, only for its £150,000 bid to be rejected.
It said owner Arkengarthdale Parochial Church Council had been told it would be acting illegally unless it accepted the highest bid, which was £185,000 from a private developer.
Stephen Stubbs, chair of UDCLT, said: “We thought ours may be an isolated case, but it has become clear similar community asset-stripping is happening elsewhere.
“It would appear money is the only motivation; all the talk about the importance of communities and helping with the housing crisis is proving to be just empty rhetoric.”
A Church of England spokesperson said: “Long-term community and social action are always important considerations in any of our financial and planning decisions, with responsibility for properties laying, in the most part, with individual dioceses, which are separate and independent charities.
“The church doesn’t operate as one charity but as many charities, many of which have historic and idiosyncratic objects which sometimes involve a specific obligation to obtain the best value for assets sold.
“There are instances where a charity can sell for not-the-highest price if the purpose is directly in line with its charitable objects – this is discerned by trustees on a case-by-case basis.”