In the past we have made repeated references to the failure of Derbyshire county council over many years properly to discharge its obligations as sole trustee of the second largest charity in Chesterfield. Unfortunately this scandal still continues, as we explain in this post.
As we have previously explained, there are two unrelated issues here.
One is the threat to the survival of Hurst House, a listed building in the Abercrombie Street conservation area, which has now been empty for eight years. The other is that since 2002, when the charity was remodelled into its present form under a Charity Commission Scheme, not a single young person in Chesterfield has benefited from the charity.
More than two years ago the county council secured the consent of the Charity Commission to transfer its trusteeship of the Chesterfield Schools Foundation, another large charity from which two schools in the Ripley area benefit, and 44 much smaller educational charities, to Foundation Derbyshire. This is an umbrella organisation which administers a number of charities and has hitherto had no interests in the north-east of the county.
That transfer has yet to take place. The reason given for this is that there are problems concerning the title of the Chesterfield Schools Foundation to two pieces of real property owned by the charity. One is Hurst House, the other is the greater part of the land on which Brookfield School stands. Civic Society officers who have been most closely involved in this matter have a shrewd idea as to the nature of these ‘problems’, although we have been unable to confirm our suspicions. On the other hand, we have no doubt that it is wholly unacceptable for any solicitor employed in the public service to fail to complete the transfer of two pieces of real property over a period of two years. Any solicitor in private practice who provided such a poor service to their client would have been reported to the Solicitors’ Regulation Authority long ago.
In this case the client is a charity whose sole trustee is the employer of the solicitor who, we feel, has so conspicuously failed to carry out their client’s instructions. This means that the client has no means of securing redress for poor service. We therefore complained a year ago to the Charity Commission about this delay. Anxious as always to uphold its well-deserved reputation as Britain’s most ineffectual statutory regulator, the Commission refused to take any action.
Most recently, we were told by Foundation Derbyshire that ‘it was hoped’ to complete the transfer of the real property (and thus the trusteeship) by 28 February 2022. At about the time that deadline passed without the transfer being completed, we were in contact with the Local Government Ombudsman over the East–West Walking and Cycling Route. As an incidental outcome of this, we were told that the Ombudsman can under some circumstances investigate complaints against a local authority in its role as charity trustee. We were encouraged to write to him with details of our complaint against the county council. This we have done, but have recently heard that the complaint cannot be investigated by the Ombudsman.
Our complaint is simple and is based on the familiar test of ‘reasonable competence’. Would a reasonably competent solicitor in private practice have failed, over a period of more than two years, to have completed a conveyance of these two pieces of real property, however complicated the titles that were being transferred? We do not believe that a reasonably competent solicitor would have performed so badly and it is for this reason that we had asked the Ombudsman to investigate.
Presumably at some date in the future, these transfers will be completed and Foundation Derbyshire will replace the county council as sole trustee of the Chesterfield Schools Foundation. As soon as this event occurs, the Civic Society will press Foundation Derbyshire to take two actions without delay.
One is the sale of Hurst House, since it cannot possibly be the best interests of the charity to retain possession of an empty building which is a liability not an asset for the charity. We will strenuously oppose any attempt by Foundation Derbyshire to seek the demolition of Hurst House on the grounds that a cleared site will be more valuable than land with a derelict building on it (if this should happen).
The second is that the Chesterfield Schools Foundation must henceforth be administered in accordance with the Scheme of 2002, so that young people in Chesterfield benefit from it, as they have so conspicuously failed to do during the county council’s thirty years of scandalous neglect of the charity.
This post was amended on 9 April 2022 to add information regarding our request to the Ombudsman to investigate our complaint to them and to amend references to “Community Derbyshire” to “Foundation Derbyshire”.