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This is the right moment to act, housing commissioners tell Synod

27 February 2021

The Bishop of Chelmsford-elect, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, chairs the session on housing

The Bishop of Chelmsford-elect, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, chairs the session on housing

WIDESPREAD approval and the warm reception given to the report of the Archbishops’ Commission on Housing, Church and Community (News, 26 February) had opened up a window of opportunity, the commission’s chairman, Charlie Arbuthnot, told General Synod members on Saturday afternoon.

It was “a door of hope” for the Church of England to lead by example and encourage others to follow, he said.

The question, in what was an issue of social justice, was how to go over and above in considering how church land might be used. Was the Church’s mission and ministry better served by “saving money for the future, or by leading a national response to a national crisis now”?

The mapping of all the land owned in any guise by the Church of England was not, he assured the Synod, “setting everyone up for a fire-sale of assets”, but a matter of “knowing what those assets are, and how to make them available”.

With reference to what he described as the “frustrating constraint” of charity law that required churches to maximise best-value returns, the Commission was recommending the introduction of a new church Measure to enable parishes to sell land for community benefits at less than market rates.

The talk should not be about selling, but about stewarding land, he said in answer to further questions from Synod members about market value and the pressure on national and diocesan budgets. He urged dioceses to remain as landlords of the land, and to ensure that any contractors approached to do work also signed up to these values.

“God has given us these resources to be used in the mission of the Church . . . for the people God loves,” the Archbishop of Canterbury said in a brief introduction to the session, which was chaired by the new lead bishop for housing, the Bishop of Chelmsford-elect, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani. He described it as a “radically, theologically profound challenge”.

Another commission member, David Orr, who is the former chief executive of the National Housing Federation, spoke of the need to engage everyone in a “huge challenge” that had not been invested in for decades — a “long-term problem requiring long-term engagement and collective thinking”.

The Government had a part to play in how land was used, he said; but it needed a long-term strategy, something to drive change over the next 20 years. “We need no more short-term initiatives, like starter homes, which delivered nothing,” he said. “We are leaving the poorest in our communities behind.

“This is a shared national endeavour. We all have a part to play. You in the Church have an opportunity to play a critical leadership role by saying: ‘We are doing this and we invite others to join us.’ It will depend on how we use our land and people.”

The present definition of “affordable” housing meant nothing, Mr Orr said. “It has to be a relationship between price and income. People have to be able to afford to live in them.” In addition, he said, “Anything that comes from selling at less than market value must be kept as affordable in perpetuity, and not turned into a private good.”

The Bishop of Kensington, Dr Graham Tomlin, who is vice-chairman of the commission, said that a real spiritual challenge lay at the heart of the issue of housing. He invited the Synod to think about what the Church was for: was it interested only in the survival of the institution?

Another commission member, the Revd Lynne Cullens, Rector of Stockport and Brinnington, urged parishes and dioceses to look at the wealth of resources on the commission’s website, including the bank of 40 case studies it had undertaken. She rejoiced in work that was already happening — where churches, for example, were re-purposing church halls or developing land in partnership.

Synod members had many questions. Mr Arbuthnot was optimistic about discussions that he had had with opposition parties, and emphasised the commission’s willingness to work with the Government. There was more talk there of “communities”, which he took to be a sign that a more holistic approach was being taken by government.

“There is a real connection possible here,” he concluded. “The number of endorsements of what we have said demonstrates that now is the time. There is a mood for change.”

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