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Planning policies prevent churches helping people, says priest

02 November 2018


St John the Baptist, Hoxton

St John the Baptist, Hoxton

PLANNING policies that prioritise heritage are preventing churches on the frontline of the housing crisis from helping people, a priest in London has said.

The PCC of St John the Baptist, Hoxton, want to build a terrace of affordable housing on adjacent church land, using the money gained to refurbish the church and build an annex including rooms for children’s and community work.

It is envisaged that about 32 flats, available at the London Living Rent, would be let to local people, including young families and low-income workers seeking accommodation near their place of work.

A pre-application was submitted to the council in 2016 and rejected on the basis that the church is Grade II* listed, with the officer citing National Planning Policy. The policy states that: “Substantial harm to or loss of grade II listed buildings . . . should be exceptional”. Historic England agreed with the council’s position. Around three-quarters of the C of E’s churches are listed.

“Currently, church land cannot be used for affordable housing unless the land is not proximate to the church itself or if the church is a modern church,” the Vicar of St John’s, the Revd Graham Hunter, said this week. “In the places where there is the greatest need — like dense urban environments — the chance is any land the church has will be in the church yard and will face the same challenges we do. There needs to be a debate about what land is for.”

The “huge plot of land” next to St John’s is currently being used as a car park, which provides the church with revenue, but “has always felt unimaginative”, Mr Hunter said. “We should be able to say something prophetic about the need for the built environment to serve the social mission of the Church.

Although private developers have expressed interest in the project, Mr Hunter wants to avoid working with a for-profit firm and would like to work with a charitable provider to create housing for rent that is “genuinely affordable for local people”.

The Mayor of Hackney has described an “unprecedented housing crisis” in the borough, in which over 12,000 people are on the waiting list for social housing and just 26 per cent of residents own their own home. House prices have risen by 71 per cent in the past five years and are now 17 times the average annual income. Thirty-percent rent privately and the cost of rent has risen by 36 per cent since 2011. Around 28,000 people are living in temporary accommodation.

“The church scheme is entirely beneficial to the community yet getting there is tortuously difficult,” Mr Hunter said. “If I went to a private developer, I imagine they would bite my hand off and put in a planning application and get refused and pay a barrister or negotiate a community infrastructure contribution at such value that the council would bite. As a charitable project, we are not eligible for that.”

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”.

This week, the Housing Justice Director for England, Jacob Quagliozzi, said that the issues raised in Hoxton “may require some work from central and local government and other stakeholders. The NPPF is a national strategic document which local authorities have to interpret and it may be appropriate to investigate what can be done to further facilitate the development of genuinely affordable housing on church land through the planning system. What cannot be the case is that churches are disincentivised from building affordable housing by a planning system which too often favours private developers with deep pockets to fund luxury developments.”

On Friday, a spokeswoman for Hackney Council said: “Only informal pre-application discussions have taken place between Hackney as Local Planning Authority and St John the Evangelist Church. In such circumstances, any pre-application advice provided will have regard to national heritage and conservation policy.” 

Last year, the Archbishop of Canterbury agreed that the Church had to look at affordable housing “more and more seriously. We have a huge responsibility as the Church (News, 1 December)”

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