Church considers sale of bishops' palaces: Income needed to replenish finances still blighted by disastrous property speculation of late Eighties

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THE CHURCH Commissioners, who manage the assets of the Church of England are considering selling the palaces of the Bishops of Durham and Peterborough to help recover from disastrous property speculation in the 1980s, according to their annual report.

The commissioners presented their summary accounts for 1993 yesterday, which showed that church assets have recovered half the pounds 800m lost in the property crash at the end of the Eighties. The assets are now worth pounds 2.4bn, and they have paid back about half of the pounds 500m they borrowed to finance the speculation.

But Sir Michael Colman, the First Church Estates Commissioner, who was appointed two years ago, said it would take until 2000 before the Church's finances were properly organised again.

An area of land at Ashford in Kent, bought in 1988 in the mistaken belief that it would benefit from the Channel tunnel, have now been revalued as agricultural land 'because local property prices are insufficiently buoyant to justify the investment in infrastructure which development of the site will require', the report says.

The commissioners at the moment pay all the pensions, and 37 per cent of the salaries of the clergy. The fear is that they will be unable to subsidise clergy salaries in the future and may even be unable to guarantee pensions.

The proposals to sell bishops' palaces have been popular with laity. However, it is unlikely that much money would be saved or raised because a large proportion of the palace buildings is used as office space and alternative accommodation would have to be found.

Sir Michael said yesterday that he hoped the commissioners would be able to play their part in supporting the weakest areas of the Church, even if this meant richer dioceses taking over some of the responsibility for pensions. 'It is very important that we recognise our limitations. Our income will never be enough for the mission of the Church. It costs pounds 600m a year to run the Church, and our income is only about pounds 150m.'

A further charge on the commissioners is the payment of compensation to the clergy who leave the Church in protest against the ordination of women. So far, 200 have resigned, and this will cost about pounds 3m a year for the next three years. Leaders of the anti-women movement claim that at least twice as many will eventually decide to leave.

Giving from churchgoers to diocesan funds rose by pounds 4.6m last year, or 7p a week per churchgoer. However, it will have to rise by considerably more than that to cover the shortfall left by the property speculation, estimated by Sir Michael yesterday at pounds 20m a year in lost income.

The commissioners have taken a number of steps to ensure that the errors are not repeated. Two new property specialists have been appointed to the powerful assets committee, which has had its autonomy greatly reduced. An audit committee has been set up. The commissioners have also appointed independent valuers to look at their property portfolio.