HC Deb 25 January 1999 vol 324 cc16-7
35. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

What steps the Commissioners take to ensure that freeholds are not disposed of for less than the best available price. [65559]

Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners)

The commissioners would normally offer their own property for sale on the open market. When a redundant church is sold or leased, however, financial considerations are not the overriding factor. Rather, the priority is to seek a suitable use for the church. Many different factors have to be taken into account, primarily the architectural and historical significance of the church building, and the views of parishioners, heritage bodies and other interested parties.

Mr. Prentice

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. My interest was triggered when I read Jimmy Hill's autobiography over Christmas. He reminded me that in the 1980s the freehold of Fulham football club was sold by the Church Commissioners for £900,000 to the then chairman of the club, Ernie Clay, who then sold it on for £7 million and is now living somewhere in Portugal. Since then, there has been a move away from property into equities. What is the Church of England's policy towards investing in UK equities, and specifically those companies that provide employment in deprived urban areas such as north-east Lancashire?

Mr. Bell

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's rather wide-ranging question. While he has been reading Jimmy Hill's autobiography, I have been reading that of George Hardwick, the former captain of England and Middlesbrough player whom I see regularly at my football games—although we do not talk about Church matters when we meet in the directors' room at Middlesbrough football club.

It has always been the Church's policy to offer its property for sale on the open market and to get the best price for it. That is a natural part of the Church's duties, and the funds are of course used to provide the wherewithal for the parish priests and their pensions and for the bishops' stipends. As for the policy on the sale of shares and the relationship between property and share investment, we have reduced our shares in property to something like 22 per cent. of our overall investment. The rest is involved in equity. The Church Commissioners always take into account their financial obligations and local constituencies and communities such as those of my hon. Friend.

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)

On behalf of the northern region, I support the interesting idea put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice). I have not been reading autobiographies, but I have been reading the biography of Richard Nixon by Jonathan Aitken. I do not think that the opinions of either on bishops would be highly appreciated in the Chamber at the moment.

It would be a good idea to recycle the Church's money far more beneficially than at present to generate jobs, particularly in inner-city areas. The report "Faith in the City" and a report published during the last general election did not receive the attention that they deserved. I fully support my hon. Friend's idea, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Second Church Estates Commissioner will support it too.

Mr. Bell

I plead guilty to having an autographed copy of Jonathan Aitken's book about Richard Nixon. I read not only the autograph but the book.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

It is an excellent book.

Mr. Bell

As the hon. Gentleman says, it is an excellent book.

On the more serious point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) raised, the Church Commissioners have a statutory obligation relating to their investments to provide the wherewithal for the clergy, for pensions and for bishops. We are unable to go beyond that statutory obligation. However, we make it clear that the commissioners should make available land for affordable housing developments in areas such as those that my right hon. Friend has in mind. In the Octavia Hill estates in central London, we provide houses and flats at modest rents.