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Octavia Hill sale: Commissioners refuse to reconsider

The controversy over the sell-off of social housing in Waterloo and Southwark reached the Church of England's General Synod this week.

Anger is growing among residents of the so-called Octavia Hill Estates, which include properties in Waterloo and Union Street.

Last week the Commissioners revealed that they were poised to sell 159 Waterloo homes and 93 properties in Union Street to GraingerGenInvest.

Vauxhall MP Kate Hoey said: "This has been a shabby business from the beginning". She accuses the Commissioners of "showing no interest in talking to or listening to residents".

First Church Estates Commissioner Andreas Whittam-Smith told the synod: "I am not asking the assets committee to reconsider the matter because I very firmly believe that this is an extremely satisfactory outcome.

"The Commissioners are not satisfactory managers of this sort of property, we are not big enough, we don't have economies of scale and I must tell you that whilst the capital value has increased substantially the actual income return you have seen, especially when you take into account that we have spent 20 million on improvements, was close to zero."

"We abandoned a century of good work"

However, not all members of the assets committee were so pleased with the outcome. The Bishop of Worcester, the Rt Revd Peter Selby, said “We took a major missionary decision on Friday and abandoned a century of good work. It is very important that if we have decided to abandon the memory of Octavia Hill and her legacy we can at least do her the honour of remembering how we have behaved."

Local MPs Kate Hoey, Simon Hughes and Harriet Harman have formed a cross-party alliance to support the tenants of the estates, which also include homes in Vauxhall and Walworth. The campaign against the sell-off has also been backed by local clergy and members of local churches.

The tenants fear that rents will be raised to market levels, pricing long-standing local families out of the area.

A survey carried out by campaigners revealed that as many as 97 per cent of tenants of the Waterloo estate opposed the sale.

In reply to a question from the Bishop of Southwark, Mr Whittam-Smith said that he "could not believe" that the new owners would abandon the traditional commitment to affordable housing on the estate.

The Bishop of Southwark Thomas Butler told the House of Lords on 31 January: "...many of us in the Church would be greatly disturbed if the Octavia Hill houses were not sold to a social landlord ... We believe that no charity optimises its assets if, by maximising them, it risks damaging the charity's good name."

Lord Phillips of Sudbury explained to peers that "there is considerable dissent among church lawyers regarding the duties on the Church Commissioners concerning this estate. The Church Commissioners may have been advised that they have to maximise their returns in disposing of the premises. Might the Minister get the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General to cast his eye over the case of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford, who took the Church Commissioners to the High Court in 1991 on the issue? The judgment that came forth from the vice-chancellor gives a landmark guidance, which I suggest the Church Commissioners ought now to follow, with the consequences referred to by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark."

The estates bear the name of Octavia Hill, the Victorian social reformer who managed the estates when they were established by the church.

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