WPCC Welcomes Publication of Charity Commission’s Inquiry Report

Is this the close of a 'challenging' and 'important chapter' for the charity?

utney Common - Andrew Wilson@andrewpics

The Charity Commission’s Inquiry Report into the dispute over the alleged under-valuation of access rights on Putney Common to allow a school and flats to be built on the site of the former Putney Hospital, has been published today (2nd July).

The scope of the inquiry included: - the administration, governance and management of the charity by the trustees with specific regard to the granting of the easement in August 2014 to the London Borough of Wandsworth for access rights over Putney Lower Common and governance costs generally - whether or not the trustees had complied with and fulfilled their duties and responsibilities as trustees under charity law - the extent to which the trustees were unwilling or unable to comply with the action plan issued by the Commission on 22 October 2015 - whether the easement was granted at a significant undervalue and, if so, whether sufficient consideration was given as to whether it was appropriate or feasible to recover any monetary loss to the charity and from whom - whether conflicts of interest were managed appropriately.

While the Commission concludes that the current trustees have demonstrated their ability to act collectively in the best interests of the charity it found evidence of previous mismanagement of the charity. But former trustee Nick Evans called the report a “complete whitewash”.

A potted history:
On 14 February 2012 Wimbledon & Putney Commons Conservators' Trust (WPCT) sold the hospital site to Wandsworth Borough Council (WBC) for £4,400,000. On the same day the original trustees entered into an agreement with WBC (‘the 2012 agreement’) relating to the granting of an easement (‘the easement’) over part of the Commons to WBC. The 2012 agreement provided that, following planning permission being obtained to develop the hospital site into a primary school and residential flats, WBC and the original trustees would enter into a Deed of Easement in the form annexed to the 2012 agreement. The easement’s purpose was to grant access rights over Putney Lower Common to the hospital site. The 2012 agreement provided for £350,000 to be paid to the original trustees in return for the grant of access rights, £1 for rights relating to the school and £349,999 to the flats.

In May 2015, due to differing views amongst the trustees a legal firm was instructed to review the way in which the sum paid for the easement was determined and whether the process met charity law requirements.

On 18 August 2016 the Commission opened a statutory inquiry under section 46 of the Charities Act 2011 (‘the Act’) as they were concerned there was a risk to public trust and confidence in the charity and concerns about the funding of continuing legal action.

The findings:
The Commission has stated that the original trustees in 2012 failed to obtain a formal surveyor’s report or to obtain formal legal advice that this was not required in advance of the granting of the easement. The Commission also found that the retrospective valuations have indicated that the easement may have been transferred at an undervalue.

The inquiry found that the inability of the subsequent trustees to manage the trustee dispute resulting from the granting of the easement was evidence of mismanagement of the charity.

The inquiry found that it was a reasonable decision for the trustess not to seek to recover any funds which may have been lost to the charity as taking legal action to recover losses sustained by a charity would be a costly and unpredictable course of action.

The inquiry reports that the 'administration, management and governance of the charity has now significantly improved, in particular since the trustee elections of 2018. In its recent meetings and correspondence with the inquiry the current trustees have demonstrated their ability to act collectively in the best interests of the charity.'

Mrs Diane Neil Mills

Mrs Diane Neil Mills, Chairman of the Board of Conservators has welcomed the report and its findings: "Bringing the Charity Commission’s Statutory Inquiry, opened on the 18 August 2016, to a close has been WPCC’s highest priority and to that end the Conservators have worked with the Charity Commission to support the inquiry and have also put in place a number of measures to bolster governance of the charity."

“The Conservators are committed to putting in place a governance structure that reflects the best interests of the charity, allowing Conservators to fulfil their constitutional duty of protecting, preserving and enhancing Wimbledon and Putney Commons for the purposes of exercise and recreation. The past few months have highlighted the critical role of the Commons not only in allowing the pursuit of outdoor exercise but in meeting the mental and social needs of the community.

As Conservators, we believe that together we can build on the strengths of the organisation, reflecting the individual and collective commitment and dedication of many over the years. The 16 August 2021 marks 150 years since the Wimbledon and Putney Commons Act of 1871 received Royal Assent and we look forward to celebrating this important milestone with the closure of the inquiry behind us.”

However, is this really the end? Perhaps not - Putney resident, Nick Evans, who resigned as a trustee of the board of the Conservators of Wimbledon and Putney Commons over the dispute, has tweeted that he has seen four different draft “final reports” and tweeted:

Third Sector reports that they have seen evidence that the report was toned down because one trustee threatened legal action.