Antonia Swinson: The new property survey is vitally important research

The other day, whilst wandering along the Thames, I came upon the famous Richmond Lock & Weir, now newly and splendidly restored after a £4 million refit and beloved of so many locals for its Grade II listed metal work and dramatic sweep across the river. Chatting to a workman, I asked what his biggest challenge had been, thinking he would cite the force of the tidal current, the winter rains or the complexities of restoring a working barrage. His answer? 'Pigeons!'

It was a lesson in answers depending on the viewpoint of the person asked. He was one of the painting team and so pigeon slime ruining his gold leaf scrolling was obviously the worst occupational hazard over the winter months.

This brings me to the bi-annual property survey, which the Ethical Property Foundation has run since 2012 and which is now live for a fifth edition in 2020 - including a special issue for London. What property questions should we ask voluntary sector leaders and trustees when we want answers that count and can make a difference when we brief funders, policymakers and local authorities and commercial landlords?

Let us not forget that our sector contributes over £17 billion to the economy - more than the agricultural sector and fisheries combined. We employ over 860,000 paid staff and 20 million volunteers, yet there is often wonderment in the voices of policymakers when I discuss the voluntary sector estate. 'You never think about property in relation to charities', they say. But unless one is operating in a field or circus tent how are all the myriad services actually supposed to be delivered?

The new property survey is accessible from the home page of our new website and it is vitally important research. No one else this year is going to ask you these questions about your property experiences, challenges and needs in the same way. Why? Because we are a charity set up to champion charities and not-for-profits irrespective of size, location, model or cause - not a commercial property business chasing the top charity 1% .

We ask about turnover, sector, the percentage of turnover you spend on property costs, and whether you have a property strategy or if your organisation has received property advice or management training in the last three years.

Other questions simply ask for yes or no answers: do you have a suitably skilled person responsible for property management; do you report on property regularly to trustees? Do you have a property budget? Then we ask if property is a risk to your charity's future sustainability or if you find property issues are a barrier to delivering your charitable objectives.

In our 2018 survey, many respondents told us that difficulty in securing affordable accommodation was a significant challenge and was inhibiting service delivery. For the first time too, the survey revealed that more charities were renting from commercial landlords than local authorities as the public estate was developed or sold off.

This year we are asking a new question about MEES Minimum Energy Performance Standards, which currently prevent new lettings which fill to meet a minimum standard of Energy Performance Certificate. This will extend to all lettings by 2023 and yet there is low awareness within the sector - with profound implications as older, energy-inefficient premises are sold off. This is the harsh reality behind the worthy aim of reducing carbon emissions: in saving the planet - you might find yourself evicted and without an office in 18 months' time.

Hence why we need a national conversation with policymakers of all administrations about
a social workplace policy - perhaps as one core contribution about the future of the high street - which is as important and as well funded as social housing. As for grant funders, I hope the answer to the 2020 questions is that providing core funding is not a luxury but a necessity.

Antonia Swinson is the CEO of the Ethical Property Foundation.

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