Antonia Swinson: why do charities see property planning as an optional extra?

It is a bitterly cold winter’s afternoon, but luckily for me, I am at a roundtable in the City of London’s warm Guild Hall, courtesy of City Bridge Trust. A senior group of guests are discussing the findings of the first London Charity Property Survey which my organisation, the Ethical Property Foundation, recently published in partnership with the Charity Finance Group. It wasn’t a large-scale study – just 138 CEOs and finance directors – but covered every London borough and social mission.

Some issues were expected. Namely, the difficulty in sourcing funding for property and the challenge of finding suitable premises now the full-on retreat of London’s local authorities as charity landlords is underway. However, the big difference between London and the rest of England and Wales is the shift to renting from commercial landlords – 40% compared to 33% of charities we surveyed in England and Wales as a whole.

How are commercial landlords responding to the complex needs of this sector? We share experiences of flexible home working and how Cloud technology is creating big changes in charity management. The issue of course, is that the vulnerable people we serve require appropriate premises. And what if charities are community bases, serving costly areas such as Soho or Victoria? They can’t move out to cheaper neighbourhoods. How could the planning system and the London Mayor’s office address the desperate need for social workspaces?

As you might expect, property costs are a big issue for London charities, accounting for over 20% of total expenditure for 16.5% of respondents. Of those we surveyed, 28% of charities consider property as a barrier to delivering their charitable objectives, with 20% citing a lack of affordable premises and 8% a lack of space.

Too few charities realise that property management is part of financial management. This should not be surprising given so many finance directors have responsibility for premises. Every charity undertakes financial planning, so why is property often seen as an optional extra?

Yet despite this, 68% of the London charities we surveyed do not have a strategic property plan. Just over half (51%) say no-one with appropriate expertise is specifically responsible for property within their organisation – 9% higher than the rest of England and Wales. Unsurprisingly therefore, 24% have experienced and 19% anticipate they will experience unforeseen property costs. But it was a shock for our roundtable guests to see that 53% of London charities surveyed do not report regularly on property to trustees, compared to 44% across the whole of England and Wales. Why not? Are trustees not interested?

More than half of London charities (51%) do not carry out regular risk assessments on their property, a significant 10% difference, compared to the 61% of charities in the whole of England and Wales that do. And staggeringly, 36% of London charities do not keep complete records of the property they own or rent. One solicitor present said he was asked, on average, every 18 months for copies of the lease – by the same charity.

Our survey indicates that there are vast numbers of worried and stressed out Londoners in the voluntary sector, working to change the world for the better, in property that may or may support them.

Outside, the dusk is falling and the City of London’s tall buildings begin to wink, as lights are turned on in office floors, which crawl up into the sky. Except they don’t. Most floors of most of the office tower blocks are a dark void. No one’s there. They’re empty properties, but not for the likes of us. Instead, it’s a visual representation of market economics and how our sector is now really going to have to wise up and fight for space in our capital.

The first London Charity Property Matters Survey is available as a free download from the Ethical Property Foundation website.

Antonia Swinson is the chief executive of the Ethical Property Foundation.

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