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Church must use land holdings to promote affordable housing, says Archbishop of Canterbury

27 November 2017


Quizzed: the Archbishop of Canterbury on ITV’s Peston’s Politics on Sunday

Quizzed: the Archbishop of Canterbury on ITV’s Peston’s Politics on Sunday

AS THE owner of large quantities of land, the Church of England must commit to housing development, the Archbishop of Canterbury said on Sunday.

The Church Commissioners, who manage the C of E’s central assets, were “very big landowners”, Archbishop Welby acknowledged during an interview with Robert Peston on ITV. Asked whether the Church could be doing more to encourage affordable housing, he replied: “That’s something that we do have to look at more and more seriously. We have a huge responsibility as the Church.”

The Church Commissioners were “semi-autonomous from the Church of England”, he said. “We have some pretty brisk discussions with them from time to time. But the reality is that the Church of England remains a very large landowner, and we need to be committed to housing development, and, most of all, to community building.”

More houses were needed, he said, “but . . . it’s not just building things with roofs on them: we need to build communities”. This required “a very significant change to the way we look at development”.

In a speech to the National Housing Federation in 2013, Archbishop Welby called for closer working between the Church and housing associations, and said that the Commissioners should invest some of their funds in housing associations (News, 27 September 2013).

Responding to the Budget last week, the Bishop of Birmingham, the Rt Revd David Urquhart, said that Britain was “in the midst of a housing-affordability crisis” which required everyone to “think big”. He argued that the Government should do more “to improve access to genuinely affordable housing for families on low incomes” (News, 24 November).

Asked for a response to Archbishop Welby’s comments, a spokesperson for the Commissioners said that they had nothing to add to remarks made by their head of strategic land investment, John Weir, earlier this year (News, 10 February). In response to the Government’s housing White Paper, Mr Weir said that the Commissioners were “providing a range of tenures” through their investments in land. The aim was always to use this land for residential purposes, he said. “There is no intention to hold on to land that has planning permission.”

The Commissioners’ latest annual report states that almost 30 per cent of the fund is invested in real estate: a mixture of commercial, residential, and rural property, and “strategic land holdings” where planning permission for housing is being sought.

In 2016, the Commissioners generated £17 million from the sale of land, including a a site in Wells where 150 new homes will be built. Planning permission was secured for 720 houses (for market and affordable prices) at sites in Lincoln, Co. Durham, and Cumbria, and new applications were made for residential developments in Hereford (1200 homes), and Sunderland (500 homes).

The residential properties owned by the Commissioners tend to be high-end, including Hyde Park Estate and Connaught Village in west London. They also own large amounts of forestry estate, covering 120,000 acres, in the UK, the United States, and Australia.

In recent years, the Church, at a national and local level, has been increasingly challenged to use its land to help address the need for housing. In 2015, the Centre for Theology and Community warned that many churches had been sitting on under-used land for years (News, 12 June 2015), and that the Church could not speak out on the housing crisis “without putting its own house in order”. Housing Justice has called on landlords in congregations to see it as their Christian duty to take the lowest rents possible, and accept benefit payments (News, 7 November 2014).

On Monday, the Director for England at Housing Justice, Jacob Quagliozzi, said that it was “fantastic” that the Archbishop was recognising the importance of housing, and that Churches were “probably more engaged than they have been in living memory in the housing crisis”.

Housing Justice runs a project, Faith in Affordable Housing, which helps churches to release surplus land or buildings for affordable housing. Its productive relationship with the Church in Wales has resulted in the building of about 20 houses every year. Part of the challenge was to build sustainable mixed communities, Mr Quagliozzi said, where bus drivers, teachers, and nurses were not priced out.

“I think most congregations have recognised that access to affordable housing is a key pastoral issue,” he said. Housing Justice recently facilitated discussions between the Greater London Authority and a range of denominations that promises to lead to affordable housing in the City with church involvement. It has also worked with the Quakers to establish an Ethical Landlords Association, which offers tiered accreditation, from doing repairs on time to offering properties below market rents.

The PCC of St John the Baptist, Hoxton, in the diocese of London, would like to use some of its land to build affordable housing for rent, but is navigating a challenging context in which the missional drive to address the housing crisis is in tension with the demands of institutions devoted to conservation and heritage, the Vicar, the Revd Graham Hunter, said this week. But building on land in close proximity to a Grade II* listed building was proving challenging.

“Our determination to do something to alleviate the housing crisis is seen as laudable, but also deeply problematic,” he said on Monday. “The C of E also has to work out what we think land is for. Do we value it in terms of its financial value on the balance sheet, or in terms of what it could do for social need?”

During his interview with Mr Peston, the Archbishop spoke on topics such as last week’s Budget, and Brexit. There was “good news” in the economy, he acknowledged, including low unemployment, but the high prevalence of foodbank users who were in work was “a sign that work is not lifting people out of poverty in the way that we would hope, in a society which is just”.

The possibility of a “hard border” between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was “one of the toughest and most difficult and most urgent issues we’ve got to face”, he said.

He spoke at length about the need for unity in the UK: “The only way we can face our challenges is as a united and reconciled country. What we can’t go on with is the bitterness of the division among us.” There was also a need for “much more discipline in our use of language”, and he was concerned about “the use of expressions about public enemies, the use of stuff like ‘mutineers’, all these headlines which seem conditioned to stir up hatred”. Last month, The Daily Telegraph published photographs of Remain-supporting Conservative MPs beneath the headline “The Brexit mutineers”.

Asked whether he could understand the “amazing support from fundamentalist Christians” enjoyed by President Trump (Features, 10 November), the Archbishop replied: “I really genuinely do not understand where that is coming from”. The President’s attitude to women was “not as unusual as we’d like, but it is completely unacceptable”.

He would attend the State dinner given when the President visited the UK, he said: he had previously met people “who had killed many, many people. Part of the job is to meet people you disagree with, and to testify of the love of Christ to them, and to seek to draw them into a different way.”

Voting in Europe in recent years indicated that “a lot of people don’t trust that they are being told the truth”, with the result that “they will go for someone who provides often simplistic easy answers to complex and difficult questions”.

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