Derbyshire County Council (DCC) has authorised the sale of a historic building in Chesterfield - amid concerns that the authority has ‘neglected’ the property for years.
According to Chesterfield Civic Society, Hurst House - a large early-Victorian building on Abercrombie Street - belongs to the Chesterfield Schools Foundation, a charity established in 2002 which provides financial assistance to young people for educational purposes and also assists six eligible schools.
DCC is the sole trustee of the Chesterfield Schools Foundation, meaning the authority is responsible for Hurst House.
The property - which was used as a venue for adult education courses for many years after it was vacated by Chesterfield Grammar School - has not been in use since 2014.
Philip Riden, chairman of the civic society, said: “No independent trustees would have left Hurst House, a listed building in a conservation area, unoccupied for four years.
“They would have sold the property as soon as it fell vacant and proved impossible to re-let.
“The civic society will continue its efforts to ensure that the property does not deteriorate further through the county council’s neglect.”
A DCC spokesperson said: “With regards to Hurst House, it has not been in use since 2014 and the county council, as trustee, has authorised the sale of the property.
“If it does not sell in six months then it may be offered for sale by auction, with the proceeds going to the charity.”
DCC also denied a complaint by the civic society that the authority awarded itself £187,300 from the funds of the Chesterfield Schools Foundation.
The council spokesperson said: “There seems to be a misunderstanding of the relationship between the county council, as trustee, and the Chesterfield and Bolsover Learning Community – the organisation to which recent grants have been made, which is not a part of the county council.
“The grants have been used by the Learning Community for projects aimed at supporting students at eligible schools who are at risk of exclusion by delivering off school site provision.”
Mr Riden responded: “The claim that the Chesterfield and Bolsover Learning Community is not ‘part of the county council’ is disingenuous.
“This body is neither a registered charity nor incorporated under the Companies Act.
“It appears to have no separate legal identity, was staffed by seconded Derbyshire teachers and occupied county council premises in Chesterfield.
“It works with children from Derbyshire schools and has in the past been funded by the county council.
“The council has evidently persuaded the Charity Commission that payments totalling £187,300 made from the funds of the Chesterfield Schools Foundation were not unlawful, but in our view they were improper.
“The commission appears to agree, since it has concluded that the ‘council may have taken some actions that were not strictly in accordance with the trusts’ and has referred to the ‘complex issues’ raised by our complaint.
“The simplest test is whether independent trustees would have made these grants.
“We consider it inconceivable that they would have done so.”
Charity Commission complaint
The civic society complained to the Charity Commission over DCC’s ‘conduct’ as trustee of the Chesterfield Schools Foundation.
A Charity Commission spokesperson said: “The commission was contacted by Chesterfield Civic Society in 2017 over its concerns about the position relating to Hurst House.
“We carefully considered the most appropriate regulatory approach and determined that we should work with the trustee to provide regulatory advice, and authority if required, to enable Hurst House to be brought back into use, so that the charity’s purposes can be furthered more effectively.
“The commission will be engaging with the current trustee on that basis.
“We are unable to comment further at this time.”
The council spokesperson said: “We were advised by the Charity Commission they had received a complaint and provided information they asked for from the charity.
“Last week the Charity Commission confirmed they would not be taking any action against the council as trustee, but indicated they would be working with the charity to provide regulatory advice – an approach we appreciate.”
Mr Riden responded: “The civic society continues to take that view that, because of its appalling record as sole trustee of the second largest charity in Chesterfield, the county council should be replaced by independent trustees.
“If properly administered, this charity could provide valuable help to school-leavers from poor homes going on to further and higher education, as similar charities in other towns do.
“It is not doing so at present.”