THE shortfall in the number of affordable houses built on land owned by the Church Commissioners suggests that they have been “easily kidded by developers”, Frank Field MP said this week.
Mr Field was speaking after securing an answer from the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Caroline Spelman MP, about the numbers built, and how they compared with the affordable-housing requirement in each local-authority area.
Ms Spelman reported on Thursday of last week that 295 affordable homes, across eight local authorities, had been built on the Church Commissioners’ land since 2015. In three areas, the requirement was not met: in Durham, it was 34 rather than 50; in West Lindsey, Lincolnshire, 15 rather than 30; and in East Cambridgeshire 30 rather than 60.
On Monday, Mr Field, the Independent MP for Birkenhead, said that he had expected the Commissioners to exceed the minimum requirement and that they should “set trends for the secular world”. In his constituency, the housing crisis was causing “misery”.
A spokesman for the Commissioners said on Tuesday that they “aim to meet affordable-housing policy requirements, in full, wherever possible to do so”. Since 2015, they had provided for about 20 per cent of affordable new homes, against an average requirement across local authorities of 23 per cent. At present, the Commissioners either have planning permission for or are seeking planning permission for 9200 new dwellings across England.
In Durham, land had been sold to a developer who had “determined that the site could not viably provide affordable housing”. In Ely, the council had agreed that, given the “significant amount of new infrastructure” required, a reduction in affordable housing in the first phase would be “appropriate”, but there was “a clear mechanism within the planning agreement for future phases to ‘catch up’ on the affordable housing requirement and this will be kept under review by the Council”.
In Lincoln, it had been agreed with the local authority that, “owing to the nature of the housing market at that time and level of other financial contributions being sought, a reduction in the level of affordable housing would be appropriate under the circumstances.”
“One would have thought that an organisation that has had an interest in land for over 1500 years would not have been so easily kidded by developers,” Mr Field said. “I hope Synod will insist that no such deals are ever done in the future with respect to church land, without delivering first the housing needed by people of low and modest earnings.”
Planning authorities can require developers to include an element of affordable housing on a site as a condition of granting planning permission. But exemptions can be granted. Developers may argue that meeting the requirement would make the project financially unviable (if profits are forecast to be below a certain figure) or may offer to build community facilities instead.
In 2017, Shelter published a report warning of “the widespread use and abuse of viability assessments”. In a study of 11 local authorities, it calculated that 2500 affordable homes were cut from developments across 11 council areas in 2015-16, through use of this “loophole”. The Government announced several reforms to the planning framework last year.
Earlier this year, the Archbishop of Canterbury announced a commission on housing (News, 10 April). In 2017, he said that the Church Commissioners were “very big landowners” who had a “huge responsibility” to addressing housing needs (News, 1 December 2017).