The Charity Commission has appointed an interim manager to the charity responsible for overseeing common land in south-west London after the charity decided to take no action to recover money it appears to have missed out on because of a cut-price land deal.
According to documents seen by Third Sector, the commission has today appointed Gordon Reid, a partner at the firm of solicitors Barlow Robbins to oversee the management of the Wimbledon and Putney Commons alongside the existing trustees.
The commission opened a statutory inquiry into the charity in August because it was concerned that the organisation might have lost out on £1.5m after trustees failed to follow charity law when selling access rights to land that it owned.
In 2014 the charity, which maintains the 1,140 acres of common land on behalf of the public, sold the rights to a strip of land, known as an easement, to Wandsworth Council for £350,000 to create an access road for a development on the former Putney Hospital.
Under the Charities Act 2011, easements are considered under the same provisions as land sales, meaning the charity was legally obliged to commission a qualified surveyors’ report, which it failed to do.
Last year, three trustees who had joined the charity after the easement was granted commissioned a retrospective survey that estimated the easement was worth £1.9m, as reported by Third Sector.
The retrospective survey was disputed by other board members, and in October last year the commission gave the trustees an action plan with instructions to commission a second survey to work out if there had been a loss.
When the trustees failed to comply with the action plan, the commission opened a statutory inquiry. In September last year it said it had found evidence of misconduct and mismanagement at the charity.
In a statement of reasons for appointing the interim manager, sent to trustees today, the regulator said the charity had made further progress in complying with the action plan since the opening of the inquiry, including obtaining a third valuation that concluded the easement was granted "at a significant undervalue".
The trustees took advice on what action they could take to recover the money lost as a result of the undervaluing of the land and ultimately decided to take no further action, the commission said.
But the regulator said it appeared that those advising the charity might not have been given all the necessary information to provide comprehensive advice.
"It is therefore necessary to appoint an interim manager to properly assess whether the trustees have taken a decision that is in the best interests of the charity, whether the information relied upon to make the decision was sufficient and whether the decision was made in accordance with the principles of trustee decision-making set out in the commission’s guidance," the commission said.
"The interim manager will reassess the decision and, if it was made in breach of the principles of trustee decision-making, retake it in accordance with those principles."
The regulator said that an ongoing dispute between trustees about the easement was hampering proper and effective management of the charity and was damaging its reputation.
"The commission considers that this constitutes ongoing misconduct/mismanagement in the administration of the charity," the commission statement said.
A letter to trustees warned them to cooperate with Reid.
A commission spokesman confirmed Reid’s appointment as interim manager.
"The interim manager has been appointed to fulfil specific functions, including to consider the trustees’ decision not to take action to recover a loss suffered by the charity when it granted an easement for access rights over charity lands at a significant undervalue," he said.
"The interim manager will assess whether the trustees’ decision was taken properly and was in the best interests of the charity. In the meantime, the trustees remain responsible for the running of the charity."
No one from the charity was available to comment in time for Third Sector’s deadline on Wednesday morning.