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General Synod digest: more action taken to solve UK housing crisis

16 July 2021

The Revd Lynne Cullens

The Revd Lynne Cullens

THE General Synod took steps to further the Church’s commitment to building decent, affordable housing by commending the report of the Archbishops’ Commission on Housing, Church and Community, as presented to it last year. This enables steps to be taken towards clarifying legal positions over disposal of church land and non-operational property.

On Saturday afternoon, in a brief introduction to a presentation by three of the key players in the initiative, the Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, said that the Church had always cared about housing. “The heart of the Christian faith is God dwelling in us in Christ,” he said. “The report offers a compellingly positive and distinctively Christian vision for housing. It should be sustainable, safe, stable, sociable, and satisfying.

“Unfortunately, far too many don’t have this. We can and must do more as a nation to right this injustice, and we want the Church to be part of this, creating communities where people want to live.”

The Revd Lynne Cullens, Rector of Stockport and Brinnington and a member of the Commission, declared herself “convicted of the fact that human flourishing relies not just on building houses but communities. We are unrivalled experts in this. Building them is what we do.” Churches across the country were already engaged in this, she said, calling for amplification and celebration of the work being done.

It was not a case of giving parish clergy more work to do, but of giving them the means to do it differently: “Applying the assets we have to meet the housing needs of the marginalised and vulnerable.” She referred to the example of a small parish in London which regarded itself as having “nothing much remarkable about us at all”, but which was concerned at the plight of women, caught up in criminality, who had little chance of rehabilitation on release from prison.

They set up a home in a former curate’s house in the parish for up to two women. The prison authorities were so delighted that they paid the salary of an empowerment worker. “It is a story of love and hope and justice and restoration — a parish being good stewards of its assets,” she said.

“Mission is finding out what God is doing, and joining in,” the Gloucester diocesan secretary, Benjamin Preece Smith, said. The Church had an opportunity to leave a tangible legacy, a positive statement on how to build sustainable housing.

Benjamin Preese Smith

Gloucester diocese set up a new development company ten years ago to build affordable housing rather than housing at market value, doubling its profits in the process. Five “draughty vicarages” had been replaced with green parsonages. “We have learned a lot,” he said. “It takes patience, faithfulness, skill, and determination. My diocese is so excited by the Commission on Housing, a clarion call for the Church to join in.”

A coalition of faithful people had to be involved. “This is for us as much as for those in need,” he said. ”This is Kingdom-building. Literally.”

The head of planning for the Duchy of Cornwall, Nick Pollock, is on secondment to the Commission. He wanted to see church land used for the provision of genuinely affordable housing — something that could bring renewal and transformation. Work was already going on in 13 dioceses, including the provision of modern-day almshouses for key workers.

Proposals had the potential to generate additional resources for the Church, Mr Pollock said, emphasising a desire to reduce the burden on parishes and dioceses. Clarity was needed on what was responsible and admissible in law. The Housing Commission had worked closely on a geo-spatial map of all glebe land and buildings, helping dioceses to take a portfolio approach to land. There were environmental net gains in terms of physical and mental health.

Archbishop Cottrell moved the motion. “We believe it is vital that the national Church leads by example. We are looking at the legal position for disposal of church land at less than the market value if it can further the work of the Church of England in other ways. The motion seeks permission for broader missional purposes where there are currently restrictions.

“This isn’t about giving away church land, or selling it off to make money. We are not asking this Synod to vote through legal changes at this stage, but to focus on the big picture and send a firm message.”

The Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, urged the Synod to say yes. Small seeds were being planted, and there was a connection and relation locally and between dioceses. It was not simply about money, but about land. She acknowledged the many pressures on dioceses, but said that this was not about burden, and praised the Bishop’s Council in Gloucester for putting money into the developments.

Nick Pollock

Canon Timothy Goode (Southwark) reminded Synod members that only 14 per cent of social-housing provision met the national standard of being “visitable”. People lived in terrible isolation and loneliness. He urged the Commission to seriously consider how any social housing matched life-time home and accessibility standards for people of all ages and abilities.

“This is where the Church should be,” the Revd Eleanor Robertshaw (Sheffield) said. But she pointed out that, often, the more modern dioceses were poorer, having simply to sell land to survive. She urged the 42 to work together to try and support each other.

Canon Jeff West (Oxford) emphasised the importance of engaging with local and national government to ensure that housing enabled people to stay in their communities. It was a political as well as financial investment.

Enid Barron (London) was heartened by an opportunity to build to the highest environmental standards. She wanted to see provision for green space and trees, bringing housing together with the climate and ecological crisis.

The Revd Bill Braviner (Durham) wanted to encourage the Church to use every opportunity also to develop sheltered housing and care homes.

Simon Friend (Exeter), a developer, home builder, and chair of a homelessness charity, suggested that the legal note in section (b) of the motion did not clarify what “for charitable purposes” was. In a high-risk business, who would bail out failed diocesan development companies?

Andrew Gray (Norwich) said that the Church had a culture of selling off land. “If you want to make it available, put it into a special purposes vehicle so that you always maintain ownership,” he suggested. “It is not a stark choice between selling at market value or at discount.”

Josile Munro (London) thought one of the biggest concerns was affordability. The words meant different things in different places: “It is really important to fasten that down.”

The Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, spoke of the impact of the unregulated market in Cornwall by the massive purchase of second homes, which was having a devastating impact on the wider community in denying homes to local people. There was also crisis in the rented sector. “As a Church, we have a voice and assets. We need to use them,” he said.

Canon George Newton (Guildford) was enormously encouraged, but wanted the Church to go further and address the accelerating breakdown of family units, which was leading to families living in two houses where it used to be one. “We can be pastoral, practical, and prophetic,” he said.

The motion was carried by 237-1 with three recorded abstentions. It read:

That this Synod, recognising that the housing crisis harms all society and responding to housing need is an integral part of the mission and ministry of the Church of England, particularly in so far as it affects the poorest and most marginalised:

a) commend the report of the Archbishops’ Commission on Housing, Church and Community, including the call for all actors in the housing market to play their part in ensuring that everyone has access to a decent and affordable home in accordance with the five core values outlined in the Commission’s final report.

b) acknowledge the Legal Note by the Legal Office of the National Church Institutions, which clarifies the legal position in relation to the disposal of church land that is not subject to specific restrictions and explains how parishes and dioceses are able to use this land to meet local housing need and build community; and

c) request the Archbishops’ Council to consider the need for change to the legal criteria for the management, use and disposal of Church held non-operational property that falls under the remit of the Church Property Measure and Mission and Pastoral Measure, in order to further the Church’s mission as understood by the vision presented to General Synod last year.

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