Housing: A presence, but not a building

by
17 May 2019

Chris Beales, who is a member of the Archbishop’s new commission on housing, reports some lessons gleaned from 40 years in the field

ALAMY

A housing development on the bank of the River Wear at Durham city, in the north-east

A housing development on the bank of the River Wear at Durham city, in the north-east

IN THE 1970s, I dropped out of theological college to work as a community worker on a run-down council housing estate on the edge of Durham.

I was part of a group of Christian undergraduates who had become involved with a youth club there, and, over several years, I got to know many young people and their families. At one point, we had three house groups meeting on the estate. Housing, community, and employment were key issues then — as they are now.

Today, I hold a William Leech Research Fellowship in Applied Theology, based at Durham University, looking at new housing developments across the north-east, how new communities are being created, and what part the churches are playing.

My report, published in January, opens with a quotation from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s book Reimagining Britain (Books, 16 March 2018): “Housing exists as a basis for community and community exists for human flourishing.” He also writes: “These three tools — housing, health, and education — have been the principal agents at all times of national reinvention.”

New housing developments offer us a unique opportunity to help shape communities for the next century and beyond. The challenge is to build not just houses, but homes where people love to live.

In exploring how to build “good community”, I had some specific starting-points:

  • Everyone should have the right to a good, truly affordable home, providing safety, security, and a sense of belonging in a well-designed, eco-friendly, mixed, and socially balanced community.
  • Good local jobs and business opportunities and carefully planned retail, community, and leisure provision are essential.
  • So are accessible local education and health-care provision.
  • We should think about “future-proofing”: ensuring good provision for older people now and in the future.

 

BEFORE considering the current landscape, it is instructive to take a look back in time. I am fascinated by the massive population expansion in the 19th century in County Durham and Northumberland, as mines opened and industries grew. Workers were imported from Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, Lancashire, and elsewhere to work in the pits, steelworks, and shipyards.

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The Church of England was, for much of the time, utterly overwhelmed. Its theology and practices were class-ridden, paternalistic, and largely insensitive to the huge issues of injustice, poverty, and hardship encountered by these new working communities.

In many pit villages, it was the Primitive Methodists who were the most active, and often their lay preachers became involved as trade-union leaders, fighting the bosses for better wages and working conditions.

From about 1860 onwards, the Anglican response to these growing new communities was twofold: to recruit and appoint working-class clergy; and to build more churches — because people needed a church to go to.

It didn’t work.

The 1881 census records, for example, that only 4.3 per cent of the population of Newcastle described themselves as attending an Anglican church, and only 15 per cent attended any church at all.

The next significant change came after the Second World War. In my report, I describe two new towns created from the 1950s onwards. Newton Aycliffe, near Darlington, was a government-funded new town. The architect of the Welfare State, William Beveridge, had a home there. The vision was thoroughly egalitarian: good housing, industry, education, leisure, shops, and community organisations were essential ingredients for all.

Cramlington, in south-east Northumberland, “Britain’s first enterprise town”, was initiated by Northumberland County Council and the builder William Leech. Its success and continued growth and adaptability have helped to sustain the original vision.

 

IF THE Church is to play a significant part in responding to new housing, early engagement with local authorities is crucial. In the north-east, each of the 12 local authorities is required to draw up plans for housing and employment for the next 15 to 20 years, cataloguing and assessing all land available for development and consulting as widely as possible.

Here, as elsewhere, there are many formerly industrial-brownfield sites, but they are often polluted and require expensive remedial work. This prompts the question: who pays for that? There are also many greenfield sites, including farmland, which developers prefer to build on.

Into this complex equation comes the issue of land value. I quote, in my report, a Roman Catholic commentator, who writes: “The uplift in land values when planning permission is given should facilitate imaginative solutions. A different planning framework might allow developers to engage with local communities . . . and require the former to compensate the latter for any loss of environmental amenities.

“That in itself could lead to a process of constructive engagement, rather than the conflict our current systems promote.”

I also refer to the growing interest in offsite construction and modular housing, such as the Innovation Village in Gateshead. In Teesside, I’m working with Methodists to explore putting modular apartments into a large old church. I also describe a range of other innovative ways to tackle the housing crisis, one of which — a finance co-op, InvestAge — will shortly be piloted in North Tyneside, providing opportunities to invest directly in housing and services for older people.

 

IN A recent ITV interview with Robert Peston, Archbishop Welby was challenged to look to his own backyard (News, 27 November 2017). The Church Commissioners are significant landowners in the north-east. In January, I organised a dialogue between developers, housing associations, local authorities, and church representatives from across the region. That first meeting is being followed by a second one this month.

One developer enthused about the value of meeting with such a cross-section of interested parties — perhaps illustrating what the Church can do to bring disparate groups together.

But it doesn’t just happen. Relationships have to be cultivated and trust established. In each local authority area, someone — clergy or lay — should be doing the research, meeting the planners and developers, building relationships, making friends, and feeding in ideas to be included in local plans and masterplans.

Churches can articulate a generous and inclusive vision for neighbourhoods and communities. But we must remember that, for the first time in generations, the “spiritual” dimension of life is not part of today’s conversation. There is no place, at present, for the Church in the thinking and planning processes of most developers and housebuilders — in part because the Church has chosen to absent itself from the public square.

In larger developments being planned, designed, or constructed — often the size of villages, or even small towns — only rarely is a church building to be found. In fact, a cursory examination of most local plans will reveal no mention of church or faith, and only limited references to community facilities. There is probably more about bats and badgers than community development.

In many Churches, there has been a loss of confidence that we have much to offer in a world of increasing complexity and diversity, especially in relation to new developments — when our own resources are already so overstretched trying to maintain a presence in existing communities.

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So, here is a question: are past traditions and present practices the best way for the churches to engage with the residents of new communities and the issues facing them, as they build their lives in what can feel quite daunting new circumstances, in places that can feel pretty soulless? Or do we need to rethink what we bring to the table?

 

AS A member of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on Housing, Church and Community (News, 12 April), I’ve been tasked with helping to rethink approaches to the housing crisis. Our remit is to “bring a Christian contribution to the debate about how to ensure people are well-housed, and how housing policy can be re-imagined, with a focus on building strong and supportive communities”.

The commission will be looking in particular at four broad themes: local church and community responses to housing issues; strategic work and good practice at national and diocesan levels; some of the big policy issues; and the theological questions against which the work of the other streams must be regularly weighed. We will be listening to and speaking with both the Church and the nation, drawing on a long history of thinking about housing and community.

The Church in mission is called to contribute to building “good community”, imbued with the vision and values of the gospel. This means prayerful and generous service, welcoming, befriending, supporting, encouraging, advocating, and enabling. And trusting that, in God’s good time, a group of indigenous people will gather to pray for, love, and serve their neighbourhood — not people pulled in from everywhere else because of the particular brand of religion on offer.

Churches and faith communities in this country are the largest, best-organised, and most well-resourced part of civil society. Our aspiration is for “a Christian presence in every community”. We already provide a quarter of the nation’s schools — and what better way to create friendship and fellowship in new communities than in the classroom and at the school gate?

In new developments, we need Christian people who are willing, called, to be among the early settlers, and church policymakers prepared to deploy resources to support and develop the work — not necessarily clergy, by the way: what we need are generous-spirited, theologically astute pioneer community workers, good communicators, and motivators with networking skills — a modern diaconate, called to serve.

The challenge is how new, cohesive, mixed communities can be created, not just a great number of houses built. In larger new housing developments, we have the chance to model places where housing is well-designed and caters for all ages, ethnicities, incomes, and circumstances; where facilities and services are easily accessible and to hand; and where schools and community facilities, open spaces, and sports and leisure facilities are local — creating places not of isolation, but inclusion: places where people love to live.

 

Chris Beales is a member of the the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on Housing, Church and Community.

Building New Communities in North-East England: Challenging Church and Society is available here: leechresearchfund.org/current-fellows.

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