Residents ask regulator to intervene in sell-off of charitable land near Reading

Reading Borough Council has agreed to allow a free school to be built on the Mapledurham Playing Fields, but an action group is urging the Charity Commission to block the move

Mapledurham Playing Fields
Mapledurham Playing Fields

The Charity Commission has been asked to intervene in a dispute over the planned construction of a free school on charitable land near Reading, Berkshire.

Reading Borough Council, which is the sole trustee of Mapledurham Playing Fields, agreed this month to allow the Education and Skills Funding Agency to build a free school on the site in return for £1.36m in compensation.

But the Mapledurham Playing Fields Action Group, a pressure group of local residents, wants the Charity Commission to prevent the charitable land being sold by the council, because the group claims that the council has contravened planning guidelines.

The action group said that while the free school planning application was being considered, ongoing improvement activities for the playing field’s facilities, which are used by several charities and sports clubs, had been stopped by the council.

The action group said it had received support from various organisations and charities to oppose the council’s plans, including Sport England, the Football Foundation and the Campaign to Protect Rural England.

It had also asked the Charity Commission to investigate the actions of the council as trustees of the charitable land, and the commission might have to give legal authority for the free school to be built at the site.

A request from the action group to the communities secretary James Brokenshire to intervene in the case has been rejected.

The group said that the sale of the charitable land could be an important test case for other areas where green spaces and charitable land are at risk of being sold by local councils.

Martin Brommell, chair of the Mapledurham Playing Fields Action Group, said: "The playing fields were given in trust in perpetuity for recreation and are used and loved by the community. We want to safeguard the fields and are supported by leading national charities including Sports England.

"As a test case, the implications of Reading Borough Council as trustees of the playing fields being able to alter the scope of the trust that protects Mapledurham Playing Fields as a recreational space is far-reaching. We want the Charity Commission to investigate the role of the trustees."

In a statement, Reading Borough Council said: "In taking its decision, the planning applications committee took into consideration all relevant planning matters and listened carefully to the concerns of local residents.

"Ultimately, it is for the secretary of state to determine if the application should be considered at a public inquiry."

A spokeswoman for the Charity Commission said the regulator had provided regulatory advice to the council on its responsibilities as the trustee for the playing fields.

"We looked at the trustee’s decision-making in exploring its options and were satisfied that this was delegated appropriately, in line with its powers, and complied with our published guidance on decision-making," the spokeswoman said.

"We understand the trustee has just made its decision to pursue the sale, which is awaiting a separate planning decision. If planning authority is granted, that option might also require the commission to grant legal authority under a scheme."

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