A couple of weeks ago a few hundred people gathered in Herne Hill, close to where I live, to demonstrate against the behaviour of the Dulwich Estate, a local landlord. The Estate owns 1,500 prime acres of Dulwich and the surrounding area, including the freeholds on 600 flats and maisonettes and the vast majority of the shops and pubs as well as local amenities. The focus of the demo was the closure of a much-loved toy shop, Just Williams, forced out of business by a 70% rent rise combined with a more general concern about the threat of similar rent rises forcing out other shops. They are likely to be replaced by ones which, to pay those increased rents, will be prohibitively expensive to shop in. The Estate has also proposed selling off a piece of land used as a play area by children at the local Judith Kerr Primary school for flats, and left a popular pub, the Half Moon, closed and empty for over two years. Now that they finally have a proposal for the pub they seem set to accept, it does not include a live music room, which has been a part of it for decades and which locals want re-instated.
The glib response to all this is ‘first world problems’. Boo hoo! for the middle classes of Herne Hill and their closed toy shop. And yes of course, in the face of, say, the migrant crisis and the Syrian war, there are clearly more acute life and death problems. But the existence of those issues doesn’t mean we simply forget about those that seem more banal. The ability of rapacious landlords to clean up financially without any regard or respect for the local community must be challenged. Otherwise our cities will simply become unaffordable places to live for all but those on the biggest incomes.
The Dulwich Estate was established in the early 17th Century, to give an education to poor scholars and the children of Dulwich. Today it is a registered charitable trust and has a number of beneficiaries, including some maintained schools and a chapel in South London. But the vast majority of their revenue after costs – over 85% – goes to three, very expensive fee-paying schools in Dulwich: Dulwich College, Alleyn’s and James Allen’s Girls’ (or JAGS). Between them they shared £5,815,840 of moneys from the Estate in the most recent year for which there are figures (to March 31, 2015). These are also registered charities.
Given that a year’s boarding at Dulwich College costs £38,000 – it’s £18,000 to be a day pupil – that charitable status is somewhat controversial. Certainly, to maintain their charitable status these schools are required to show that they provide a ‘public benefit’, something of which they are acutely aware. As indeed they make clear on their websites.
The ‘Master’ of Dulwich says in his welcome message that, ‘We are committed to nurturing a supportive community which encourages a sense of social responsibility.’ Likewise, one of the Governors’ objectives at Dulwich College is ‘to promote partnerships between the college and local community’. At Alleyn’s the vision underlying the School Development Plan includes that the school should be ‘recognised within the local and extended community as a force for the public good’. JAGS describes itself as a school ‘with a heart and conscience and one which reaches out beyond its own community’.
So I sent the same email to the three head teachers, Dr Joseph Spence at Dulwich College, Dr Gary Savage at Alleyn’s and Ms Sally-Anne Huang at JAGS. I wanted to know how they squared their pronounced commitment to the local community, with the fact that the Dulwich Estate, of which they are massive beneficiaries, is set on a course which is doing extreme damage to it.
All three gave exactly the same response: that the money from the Dulwich Estate enables them to provide bursaries and scholarships to pupils who would otherwise not be able to afford to attend.
There are two issues here. The first is the implicit assumption that there is a moral or practical good provided by these highly exclusive fee-paying schools. For what it’s worth I went to exactly that kind of school. I hated it and I do not see it as a model to which we should aspire. That said I accept this is a difference of political opinion.
More striking is the assumption that it’s okay to force viable shops out of business if it pays for the bursaries. The bursaries and scholarships are a charitable act. You don’t pay for charity by taking away people’s livelihoods. What’s more, the vast majority of the recipients are not getting 100% bursaries or scholarships; they come from families with the wherewithal to pay the majority of the fees themselves.
I wrote to all three head teachers asking why all this was okay. None of them replied to that point.
It’s also worth considering the detail of the finances. All three schools say the Dulwich Estate money enables them to pay for bursaries but, certainly in the case of Alleyn’s and Dulwich College, they use it to fund other things too. In its accounts to 2014 Alleyn’s reveals it spent £1.293 million on bursaries. However it received £1.624 million from the Dulwich Estate. Dulwich College received £2.176 million from the Dulwich Estate but spent only £1.78 million of that on bursaries (they spent more, but it came from their Bursary Appeal Fund). The picture in 2012 was even more striking, because the schools received significantly more from the Dulwich Estate, presumably because of the sale of assets. Dulwich College spent £1.662 million on bursaries but received £5.617 million from the Estate. Then again, they are building a new £21 million science block so they do have things to spend it on. For sake of doubt, they are legally entitled to spend this money as they wish. Whether it is moral to do so given how it is raised is a different matter.
The head teachers of both Dulwich College and Alleyn’s also told me that they had no authority over the trading methods of the Dulwich Estate. Dr Spence, Master of Dulwich College, said they have a once a year meeting with the Estate where they can express an opinion to its commercial practices, but that the Estate is not obliged to take any notice of their opinions. It’s perhaps worth noting that the Estate has 11 trustees, and that the three Dulwich schools nominate two each. So, between them they have six trustees; a majority. Again, Dr Spence tells me the schools have no influence over those trustees once they are appointed. That being so they could issue public statements declaring themselves opposed to the way the Estate is behaving. All three have stayed silent.
The Dulwich Estate and its Chief Executive John Major (no, not that one) can point to Charity Commission rules which require them to get the best financial deals they can, and therefore argue that they are merely performing their legal duties by pricing out the toy shop. Except they’re not doing so consistently, because, for example, they’ve left the Half Moon Pub empty for over two years, when it could be earning them rents. They don’t even seem to be applying their own policies as laid out in their Scheme of Management drawn up in 1995. That requires them to behave in such a way as to have ‘a positive impact on the community, is attractive to the public and thus stimulates local businesses‘. There is nothing attractive or stimulating about their current behaviour. Indeed, the Charity Commission also requires trustees to consider ‘reputational damage’ caused by their trading policies. Right now they are doing themselves enormous reputational damage. So much so that there are many of us who question why a body like the Dulwich Estate, with property worth hundreds of millions, should be a charity at all, given the tax benefits that status brings.
After my first email exchange with Dr Joseph Spence of Dulwich College I asked whether I might quote directly from our correspondence. He refused the request because he said it was clear from what I had said that I was determined to divide the local community rather than unite it.
One of us is the head teacher of one of the most expensive schools in the country benefiting from a trust that’s putting toy shops out of business. The other is a concerned local resident. I’ll let you decide who’s dividing the community.
Jay Rayner, SE24