A mix-up over the ownership of Highdown Gardens in Worthing could see the borough council receive a slap on the wrist from the Charity Commission.
The 8.5-acre gardens were left to the then town council in the 1960s and the Highdown Tower Garden and Pleasure Ground charitable trust was created.
Members of the joint governance committee were told that, until recently, the council had been operating under the mistaken belief that it was the freehold owner of the gardens, when in fact it was the sole trustee of the trust.
While embarrassing for the council, there has been no negative impact on the gardens, which have benefited from tens of thousands of pounds of maintenance work paid for by the borough every year.
The main problem involves the financial returns and annual reports to the Charity Commission, which ‘have been inaccurate for many years’.
In 1983, the council sold the gardens’ East Lodge without permission from the commission. It was ordered to invest the £27,700 from the sale and put the income back into the upkeep of the gardens.
This was done – but other public donations were not included in the returns.
The meeting was told the extra donations were also put towards the maintenance of the gardens but had not been treated as funds held in trust for the charity.
In addition, HM Land Registry shows the council as the landowner.
An officer said the registry would be updated and the financial returns for the last seven years would be resubmitted to the commission. She added: “It’s important that we’re open and transparent about this and rectify matters as soon as possible.”
Steve Waight (Con, Goring) said it was ’embarrassing that we thought we owned land when we didn’t’ and asked: “When the Charity Commission are informed, if they’re not feeling in a particularly festive mood, could they take action against the council?”
The meeting was told that, while the answer was yes, in this case the commission was unlikely to do so because of the money the borough had pumped into caring for the gardens.
The officer said: “What the council has done is fund the maintenance of the grounds and met the terms of the original bequest.
“So while there’s an omission on the return, in effect the council has assumed the day-to-day responsibilities itself which the trust doesn’t have the resources to do so.
“The expert legal advice we’ve taken suggests that, because we’ve met the spirit of the original bequest, we’ll probably get a stern letter but nothing beyond that.”