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Opinion: Church buildings can help UK to level up

13 October 2023

‘Anchor institutions’ can play a vital part in bridging regional disparities, argues John R. Bryson

THE Government’s levelling-up agenda is intended to address the longstanding problem of regional economic disparities with investment in towns and cities, rural and coastal areas. For rural areas, the emphasis is on strengthening the rural economy, developing rural infrastructure, delivering rural services, and managing the natural environment.

Central to levelling up is a concern with what are termed “anchor institutions”, defined as any organisation that has an important presence in a place and that makes an important contribution to place-building. Anchor institutions are usually large-scale employers that are considered to make a significant contribution to a local economy. Universities are premier anchor institutions.

There are, however, many other overlooked anchor institutions that perform a critical function in rural and urban areas: these include primary and secondary schools, further-education colleges, bank branches, post offices, GP surgeries, chemists, pubs, village halls — and churches.

The contributions that church buildings make to the levelling-up agenda has been overlooked. Policymakers have failed to appreciate that churches are a critical and special type of place-based anchor institution. For many communities, the parish church continues to play a central part in community life. In others, there are opportunities for the parish church to reposition itself as an important anchor institution.

THE closure of any place-based anchor institution represents erosion from below that has a negative effect on individual and community well-being. The gap between what can be termed places “on the margins” and agglomeration or urban economies continues to widen. This raises questions regarding the part that communities can play in these more marginal locations to enhance everyday living.

Crucial here is that people living in smaller settlements and in rural areas must take the initiative with the Government by incentivising, supporting, enabling, and encouraging residents to develop innovative local place-building solutions intended to support alternative anchor institutions. Churches have an important part to play here through developing new community partnerships. For more than a thousand years, local people have ensured the survival of their parish churches. The continuation of these churches for another thousand years requires residents to work with their churches to ensure that they continue to function as critical anchor institutions.

Church buildings make multiple contributions to place-building. A few years ago, the National Churches Trust calculated that the annual social and economic value of church buildings to the UK was about £55 billion (Comment, 5 November 2021). This is quite some contribution. Church buildings as anchor institutions contribute to community well-being and local economies, and this includes hosting foodbanks, post offices, and polling stations, and providing space for community events.

The ongoing decline in church attendance, and subsequent closure of church buildings, should be seen as a process involving the removal of critical anchor institutions. The Church of England has about 16,000 church buildings, and these are open to all. It is engaged in a process of managed retreat, with an emphasis on trying to avoid the closure of church buildings.

One example is St Mary’s, Bessingham, in Norfolk. The diocese of Norwich is piloting an innovative approach based on managed retreat. It has established the Diocesan Churches Trust, which enables legal responsibility for church buildings that are used for occasional services to be transferred from a parish to this Trust. The church buildings remain open, with six services held each year. The Trust provides insurance that would cover 25 per cent of rebuilding costs, but no interior cleaning, and limited maintenance. This is one solution intended to try to retain a church building in a place; but more needs to be done to try to persuade the local community to become involved.

THERE is an alternative to the Bessingham process of managed retreat, when representatives of a local community work together to envisage a new future for a church. All Saints’, Waterden, in Norfolk, is an example of this type of community-engagement process. Located down a wide grass track in open fields, this tiny 11th-century church was disused and sinking into decay.

A community group, the Friends of All Saints’, Waterden, was established in 2017 to care for the building and to maintain the churchyard. The church reopened in August 2019. Part of its mission was to raise funds for the maintenance of the church and to raise awareness. This group acquired the funds required for essential repairs, including a new nave roof and ceiling, and repairs to brickwork. Funding came from the Heritage Lottery Fund, foundations, and trusts. The outcome is that people living in the area have been extremely active in ensuring that this church building can, once again, play an important part as a local anchor institution.

There needs to be a political debate on alternative place-based anchor institutions and the contributions that they make to local well-being, community-building, and economic development. It is important that every community identify its critical alternative anchor institutions, and develop solutions to enhance their resilience and the contributions that they make to place-building.

Dr John R. Bryson is Professor of Enterprise and Economic Geography in Department of Strategy and International Business at Birmingham Business School.

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