Is neighbourliness charity?

Kaye Wiggins looks at Uturn UK's challenge to the Charity Commission's refusal to give it charitable status

A street party
A street party

The Christian community group Uturn UK will this week appear before the charity tribunal to challenge the Charity Commission's decision not to grant it charitable status.

The organisation, based in Birmingham, applied to register as a charity last year. Its proposed objects were "to advance citizenship and community development by the promotion and activation of the street associations initiative" and "to promote the Christian faith and Christian values". Street associations, Uturn UK said, were projects to bring together the residents of a particular street and encourage them to work together on voluntary activities.

The Charity Commission's response was that "although phrased as being about community development and civic responsibility, the first object doesn't fall within what the law has recognised as charitable," and that the phrase "street associations" was "not a defined term".

More confusingly, perhaps, the regulator said: "The factual matrix does not support the view that street associations as a means will result in an exclusively charitable outcome."

On the surface, Uturn's proposals seem in line with the activities of other charities, particularly of local time banks, and also in tune with the government's big society agenda. So why was it not deemed charitable?

Moira Protani, a partner at the law firm Wilsons, says the commission may have decided the application was not framed in the right way. "Put simply, the objects of Uturn UK are not expressed in charitable form," she says.

Rosamund McCarthy, a partner at the law firm Bates Wells & Braithwaite, says the problem might be a deeper one, pointing out that she is aware of another organisation with similar objects that has also been refused charitable status.

"I think the commission is concerned that the type of volunteering being promoted here, which is about helping your neighbours with everyday tasks, may not be charitable," she says.

"The people being helped in this context are not necessarily in need in a charitable sense, because they are not necessarily poor or elderly, or vulnerable in another way. Because of that the commission might see this type of activity as providing a private benefit rather than a public benefit."

Another potential concern is the political tone of some of the material published on the charity's website. It includes a list of factors that Uturn UK claims have "killed community", such as the weakening of family and of the church and the strengthening of consumerism. The site says "marriage as the model for family life must again be promoted, honoured and re-adopted. It is no good saying 'there are many lifestyles' and 'all are equal', when it is abundantly clear that they are not all equal."

McCarthy says this stance may have been a concern for the commission, but that it could be overcome if the trustees agreed appropriate safeguards with the regulator that would set clear boundaries about what was charitable and what was political.

She says the tribunal hearing would be a good opportunity to develop charity law on the issue of citizenship. "If the tribunal agrees that Uturn UK's activities are charitable, it should be bold and find a way to work with the group so that it can become a charity," she says.

"I would like to see the tribunal taking on some of the work that has in the past been done by the commission, by becoming a venue where you could work through issues around what is charitable."

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