Church Commissioners “horrify” the people of Bognor Regis
Sir Stuart Bell is a Church Commissioner
One of the peculiarites of the House of Commons was on show earlier this week when the backbench MP responsible for answering questions on the business of the Church of England appeared.
Sir Stuart Bell, who is a Church Commissioner, was probed by fellow MPs on a range of issues.
The Commissioners, who include the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, have a range of duties, from bishops’ staffing needs to pastoral reorganisation to deciding the future of closed churches.
However, it is in the management of assets that the Commissioners wield real power.
The Church had assets of around £5.6 billion in 2007 and is one of the largest landowners in the country.
Sir Stuart was taken to task by normally mild-mannered Tory MP Nick Gibb.
He wanted to know the Church Commissioners’ policy on their considerable agricultural land holdings.
“The commissioners aim for the best possible total return from all their assets, not just from the rural portfolio, within an acceptable level of risk and in accordance with their ethical investment policy,” was the response.
Mr Gibb countered that according to the secretary of the Church Commissioners, “the primary objective is to make money.”
“To that end, to the shock and horror of the people of Bognor Regis, the commissioners intend to concrete over 300 acres of beautiful and highly productive agricultural land to the west of Pagham and Bersted in my constituency,” he said.
“Given that the Church Commissioners own the third largest holding of agricultural land in the country, is it not time that this land was put in the hands of a body that has the objective of looking after the countryside and encouraging the production of home-grown food rather than leaving the land at the mercy of an organisation that … ”
The Speaker intervened to point out: “We are already running behind time.”
Sir Stuart expressed his gratitude “for your protection, Mr Speaker; that was a statement, not a question.”
“The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the fact that the commissioners have gone to great lengths to meet and talk to him,” he said.
“He met the secretary, for example, and also representatives of our department that deals with agriculture.
“The commissioners are always happy to meet Members of Parliament and to discuss issues with them, recognising that they have constituency interests, so it is perfectly proper for the hon. Gentleman to raise this matter.
“I should add, however, that the commissioners have a legal and moral obligation to their beneficiaries.
“They aim to hold financial and ethical issues together and I, for one, think that they manage that balance rather well, but they are certainly not willing to ignore their fiduciary duty to obtain the best possible long-term return from their assets, even in the face of the occasional protest.”