Dunsfold residents challenge Charity Commission at charity tribunal

They say an empty school building should only be used as a school

Proposals for a school in Dunsfold, Surrey has divided the community
Proposals for a school in Dunsfold, Surrey has divided the community

A group of local residents from the Surrey village of Dunsfold have appeared at the charity tribunal to challenge a Charity Commission ruling on a disused school building in the village.

The residents are challenging a scheme drawn up by the commission that would make it easier for a school building that has been empty since 2004 to be used for purposes other than a school.

They want the terms of the scheme to be rewritten to include a preference that the building should be used as a school, because they plan to form a charity to purchase the building and use it to house a private nursery.

The Diocese of Guildford, which is the sole trustee of the school, said it was closed because of dwindling pupil numbers. No one, it said, had since put forward proposals to reopen it in line with a 1957 ruling that said the building had to be used as a Church of England school.

The commission’s scheme says the diocese could let the building for up to 25 years "on such terms as it thinks fit for use for charitable educational purposes".

The residents – Alan Ground, Barrie Pope, Clare Lemieux and Celeste Lawrence – were represented by Mark Mullen, a barrister at Radcliffe Chambers.

At the hearing, Mullen said: "The commission’s scheme goes too far, too fast. It says that if a Church of England school cannot be operated at the site then it could be operated for any charitable educational purpose.

"This could be a school for people who have no connection with Dunsfold," he said. "It could be an administrative office for an educational charity based elsewhere entirely."

He said there was demand for a school among local residents and this should be taken into account.

Andrew Westwood, a barrister at Maitland Chambers who represented the diocese, said the residents’ proposed new scheme would place an undue restriction on the diocese in its role as the sole trustee.

"It would fetter the trustee and it would not achieve a fair balance between the religious and the educational elements of the trust," he said. "Trustees should have as much flexibility as possible to do what they think is appropriate."

James Kilby, head of legal services at the commission’s Taunton office, told the hearing: "We were rather optimistic that there would emerge an effective use of the charity’s property that would be amenable to the people who were most closely involved." He said the commission would be happy for the tribunal to issue a revised scheme for the charity.

Speaking to Third Sector after the hearing, Kenneth Dibble, head of legal services at the Charity Commission, said the regulator’s preference was for a scheme that gave the charity’s trustee as much freedom as possible and did not impose restrictive conditions such as the requirement to favour the use of the building as a school.  

The case was heard by Alison McKenna, principal judge of the charity tribunal, and the lay members Susan Elizabeth and Carole Park. McKenna said the tribunal would reserve judgement on the case.

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