September 1st sees the 400th anniversary of the foundation of Alleyn’s College of God’s Gift, now the Dulwich Estate. Any organisation that has lasted for that length of time has clearly changed over the years - it must have responded positively, if perhaps sometimes reluctantly, to changes in society’s attitudes.
When it was set up in 1616 the foundation’s aim was to assuage Edward Alleyn’s conscience as he neared the end of his life - his business interests had been successful but not always straight forward. In setting it up he wanted to help not only his fellow Dulwich residents (the chapel and burial ground) but also some of the poor youngsters (12 poor scholars) and elderly people (6 poor brethren and 6 poor sisters) in the four local parishes where he was born, or had lived and worked. The total population of these parishes was quite small so, in an age that lacked any form of state funded social services, an offer to provide education and alms-house accommodation was a substantial benefit.
But times have changed, and while there are still only 14 almshouse residents, the number of pupils now going to the seven beneficiary schools is around 8,000 - quite a few more than originally intended, and not all of them poor. Perhaps this anniversary might be a good time for the Dulwich Estate not only to look back but also to look forward - and decide where it is going to be in the next 100 years, or perhaps even in the next 10 years.
The Estate’s website says two things about its objectives. The first is that ‘The Board of Trustees seeks to manage the endowment in the long-term interests of all the Charity’s Beneficiaries’ - a worthy statement to which few can object. It is sufficiently general to mean anything and says nothing about what those long-term interests might be.
The next paragraph, however, is very clear. It says that ‘Success in achieving this objective is measured in terms of increasing, in real terms after allowing for inflation, the annual income distribution to the Beneficiaries and maintaining the value of the Charity’s assets.’ For the year 2014/15 the Estate distributed £6.78M to its Beneficiaries, up from £6.26M the previous year - and its most recent accounts also note that in 2012, 2013 and 2014 the Beneficiaries received a substantial capital distribution as well. Clearly, on these criteria for the measurement of success, the Estate does very well.
But if we go back to the ‘long term interests of the Beneficiaries’ is it doing so well? Members will be aware of the less than positive press coverage that the Estate (and the three local beneficiary schools) has recently received over the Almshouse Charity’s proposal to build on the open space next to the new Judith Kerr Primary School. This critical coverage has also referred to the Estate’s policy of maximising shop rents without consideration of either their tenants’ viability or the needs of local users. Rents have increased by 50% on some units in Dulwich Village and it is very possible that some of the traders will close. Recent experience has shown that the shops will be re-let but with very different types of occupiers.
The Dulwich Society’s is not alone in saying that the time has come for the Dulwich Estate to have a serious discussion with its Beneficiaries, particularly the local schools, on what their long term interests really are. Is it just about money or should a wider more inclusive policy be adopted? How about one that takes local residents’ views into account in decisions that directly affect them, and is more responsive to the values and aspirations of contemporary society?