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Opinion: Housing targets: time to deliver    

22 September 2023

More resources are needed if the C of E is to build affordable homes, writes Andrew Gray


“THE problem with selling off the family silver is that you can only do it once.” This phrase, wrongly attributed to Harold Macmillan, beautifully captures the Church of England’s approach to assets. Last year, I (mis)quoted that former Prime Minister while speaking at a conference in one diocese. I had been invited because of my work in setting up the Church of England’s task force on homelessness (News, 1 March 2019). At the mention of “family silver”, the Diocesan Secretary, who was sitting in the audience, bristled with indignation and challenged my assertion. The Church was doing nothing of the kind, I was told in no uncertain terms.

Afterwards, over coffee, the Diocesan Director of Education approached me. The diocese had been marketing a derelict school as a housing-redevelopment opportunity. I had lined up a pension fund to lease the site, which would have allowed at least 50 per cent of the homes to be genuinely affordable, while enabling the Church to retain ownership and make more money.

With a warm smile, the Director of Education explained that, while my efforts were appreciated, the diocese had decided to go ahead and sell the site. The trustees felt that it was “too late in the day” to change course. A group of people who had no knowledge and experience of property had been entrusted to dispose of a land asset. Once again, the Church of England had reliably chosen to the do wrong thing after failing to try anything else. I was only sorry that the Diocesan Secretary was not within earshot.

It was not supposed to be this way. In April 2019, the Archbishops’ Housing Commission was launched, with a remit to reimagine housing. Two years later, its flagship report, Coming Home, was published (News, 26 February 2021). One of its recommendations was that the Church of England should make a commitment “to using its land assets to promote more truly affordable homes”, as well as communities.

The message was clear. No more selling off the land for mass indistinguishable box-like estates, with their minimal enforced quota of “affordable” houses. The Church was going to be radical, so as to serve the poor. In a presentation to the General Synod during lockdown, a former leading member of the Commission even spoke of “giving away” church land (such a move would have been both bold and unnecessary).

After the publication of Coming Home, the Archbishop of Canterbury demanded action. Unfortunately, this coincided with cuts and a shake-up of staffing at Church House, Westminster. No money was available, and nobody, it seemed, had given much thought to how a housing initiative would be resourced. At this juncture, the diocese of Gloucester volunteered its services. Unusually for a diocese, it has its own property-development company. To date, it is Gloucester which has financed the ongoing initiative.

HOW have things progressed since a single diocese took on responsibility for a national programme? On one reading, there are grounds for optimism. The Housing Commission (now known as the Housing Executive) has begun the process of registering a new housing association to raise standards in the sector. It has committed itself to buying some affordable homes from a developer, and has liaised with the Church’s Homelessness Task Force on the availability of external finance and models for delivering homes. For the first time, church land has been centrally mapped and the information made available in a database. The Bishop of Chelmsford, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, who is the lead bishop for housing, has convened a cross-party group prepare a housing strategy for England.

All of this is progress — but the uncomfortable fact remains that, to date, the delivery of homes is notable by its absence. Barely a week goes by without being reminded in the news of colossal housing waiting lists, under-resourced councils, and queues of people prepared to outbid one another in a race for (often unsanitary) housing. Almost none of them have been helped by the Church. Housing projects that were already in the pipeline have borne fruit. Gloucester has created 100 homes; the diocese of Oxford is looking to develop more affordable housing. Nobody else is doing anything meaningful.

This is not for the lack of good will. I know from my own experience of leading the Homelessness Task Force that a small cadre of entrepreneurs, lawyers, consultants, and even institutional funds is prepared to help. So, why is the whole project in danger of coming off the rails?

The answer is twofold. First, the Church has not resourced it. Identifying land, assessing it, structuring deals, and taking sites through planning is a time- and cost-intensive business. Neither the Housing Executive nor the Homelessness Task Force has a budget or staff to be able to tackle this. Everything has relied on volunteers and one seconded diocesan secretary.

Second, the rest of the Church is not really on board. Given the choice between housing the poor or making a quick buck selling a piece of land, the Church can be relied on to do the latter. No diocese has the skill, capacity, or motive to undertake anything else. If a diocese is faced with a black hole, why not just sell off another piece of land? It keeps the wheels on the car a little longer in the face of a demographic time-bomb from the rapidly diminishing parish share; the jobs in the diocesan office are secure for the next few years. Hence, the Church continues to liquidate its assets on a one-way race to the bottom.

The dioceses of Durham, Manchester, and London are busy preparing to sell off more vicarages. Where land is concerned, the rest of the Church pays lip service to the poor.

The diocese of Sheffield recently marketed a site near Rotherham. In the estate agent’s literature, the land came with the proviso that 25 per cent of homes built on the site were to be “affordable”. Otherwise, bidders were requested to review Coming Home and “confirm they have had due regard to the report and shall aim to provide housing in line with the values outlined”.

This is the equivalent of greenwash. To obtain planning permission, all developers have to create housing of which 25 per cent is “affordable”: this is the minimum mandatory amount required by the Government. Moreover, the official definition of “affordable” is 80 per cent of market rent — i.e. not affordable to the poor. It is commonplace for companies to acquire land and then wriggle out of the “affordable” commitment, knowing that they will face few repercussions from an understaffed local authority.

The Church Commissioners have their own fully staffed land operation. Some of their housing has been built on rural exception sites, which can be developed only if lower-rent homes are the priority. They make similar noises that 30 per cent of their homes will be “affordable”. At the Church’s own housing conference last year, however, the First Commissioner acknowledged that “affordable” was the Government’s definition. The Commissioners argue that they are statutorily bound to maximise revenue. It was partly because of this that they established an impact fund for the Church, but its remit is limited to co-investing with other funds. The core problems of staff capacity and taking sites through planning remain unfunded and unresolved.

The Commissioners have an institutional opt-out. Other parts of the Church do not care. Two dioceses, both near London and with valuable landholdings, informed me that housing was “not a priority”. One senior member of a diocesan finance committee asked me why they should be involved at all. During a conference call, he stated that “It’s the Government’s job to deal with the homeless.” I was dumbstruck. Who knew that Jesus had asked us to outsource moral responsibility to the Tories?

TOO many dioceses believe, incorrectly, that housing the poor means sacrificing a surplus. It does not. Retaining and developing our own assets with the right partners would allow the Church to make a serious dent in the housing waiting lists, while holding on to the family silver. But this can happen only with resources.

And this, dear reader, is where a glimmer of light enters the narrative. Next week, the Housing Executive will submit a bid to the Archbishops’ Council to finance a new Church Development Agency, mandated to work with dioceses. The idea is that it will add capacity to handle land and property decisions on behalf of the Church. It is sorely needed.

The Housing Executive’s work, combined with that of the Homelessness Task Force, will gain traction only if it has some money behind it. The rewards are many. With the right team, the Church could lead the way by putting Coming Home into action. New communities in decent homes would pay fair rents, which, in turn, would fund ministry. It would be a win-win situation. Instead of selling land and letting developers make all the profits, we would retain the assets and maximise the revenue that they continue to earn. Parishes would no longer be solely reliant on giving.

WITHOUT support, dioceses will continue to sell off the land in a piecemeal fashion to developers whose only interest is profit. In such a scenario, all the Church will have produced is warm words, none of which will insulate a sleeping bag on a winter’s night. I hope that the Archbishops’ Council takes the call for resources seriously. Otherwise, the road to hell will be paved with not only good intentions, but with copies of Coming Home.

As for the assets, the past is a guide to the future. In 1873, the Church held two million acres of glebe land. By the 1970s, this was down to 111,628 acres. Today, some 0.5 per cent of England is owned by the C of E. It is still substantial, but dwindling fast. I will leave the last word with Macmillan: “First of all, the Georgian silver goes, and then all that nice furniture that used to be in the saloon. Then the Canalettos go.”

Andrew Gray is the Church of England’s lead on homelessness. He founded the Church’s Task Force on Homelessness in 2019, after a vote in the General Synod, of which is a lay member representing St Edmundsbury & Ipswich diocese.

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