Two of our national institutions have covered themselves in ordure recently.
The Church of England was recently in the news because the Church Commissioners have decided to sell off social housing in Waterloo, Winchester Park, Vauxhall, Pimlico and Walworth. 1,100 tenants, many of them poor and including key workers such as ambulance staff and teachers who could not otherwise afford to live near their work, will find themselves transferred to new commercial landlords. It is rumoured that the new landlords will, over the next few years, sell the housing on. It is expected that rents will rise and the social purpose for which this housing was built will disappear.
However, something that happened in 1990 is even more alarming. The Church discovered a legal loophole that enabled it to make large sums of money from unsuspecting members of the public. With its historical eye for the main chance, it was not slow to take advantage.
Andrew and Gail Wallbank inherited a 176-acre Warwickshire farm from Andrew's father. It includes a field which hundreds of years ago belonged to the local rector. According to a law dating back to the 16th Century, this makes Andrew Wallbank a "lay rector" and therefore responsible for the upkeep of the church! The parochial church council sent the Wallbanks a £95,260 bill to repair the chancel of the church of St John the Baptist in Aston Cantlow, Warwickshire.
Now the Wallbanks are probably not short of a few bob - they own another farm in Wales as well - but they didn't see why they should foot the bill for a building in which they took no interest (does anyone?) and from which they derive no benefit (ditto). They refused to pay - wouldn't you?
The church charitably took them to court. The legal battle about the so-called "chancel repairs" raged for years and eventually wound up in the House of Lords, who to their shame found against the Wallbanks and decreed in 2003 that they would indeed have to pay the £95,000 repair bill and another £250,000 in legal costs. Naturally enough, they face bankruptcy or will have to sell their home - always assuming they can find another buyer who's willing to pick up the church's repair bills in perpetuity!
The great Church of England doesn't look too charitable, does it? Grab what you can, when you can, and from anyone who's vulnerable? Not much of an example to set, you might think.
And the House of Lords? The GOS has had quite a regard for them in the past. A bunch of out-of-touch old buffers they may have been, but all too often they have been the only bulwark between power-mad Tony Bleeagh and the helpless populace. No wonder Bleagh is so keen to "reform" them (he means "emasculate", but hey, what's a few misused words to a megalomaniac?). Sadly this ludicrous judgement in 2003 rather tarnished their image.
The Church are cock-a-hoop, of course, and if you search Google for "wallbank chancel repairs" you'll find various diocesan and ecclesiastical law websites that are advising local churches to start searching the land registry to see if there are any more poor suckers out there who could be plundered of their life savings because their back garden belonged to a clergyman four hundred years ago.
As for the rest of us, if we're thinking of moving house it would be a very good idea to do our own searches. There are some very greedy vicars and congregations out there. They're after our houses and our savings and they have the House of Lords to back them up.
either on this site or on the World Wide Web.
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