Church of England should use own land to help deliver affordable homes – report

Tom Pilgrim, PA
·5-min read

The Church of England should examine how its 6,000 acres of “strategic land” could be used to deliver more affordable housing, a new report has recommended.

The Commission of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York on Housing, Church and Community has spent nearly two years researching the “housing crisis” in England.

Its new “Coming Home” report, released on Sunday, warned that around eight million people of all ages live in “overcrowded, unaffordable, or unsuitable homes”, while those in poverty “bear the brunt of this injustice”.

It added: “The scale and consequences of the housing crisis have been further exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, and it is a national scandal.”

The 10-member strong commission called for a “bold, coherent, long-term housing strategy” from the Government, while arguing that the Church should use its land assets to “promote more truly affordable homes”.

According to their report, the Church Commissioners manage £8.7 billion of assets, with roughly 15% in various land holdings.

Some 3% of the portfolio, 6,000 acres, is held as “strategic land” suitable for housing, with the report recommending a review is carried on whether such assets could be used for affordable homes and the Church “not simply be driven towards land sales at the highest price”.

The legal framework for selling church assets should be amended so church land and buildings can be used for “social and environmental, as well as economic, benefit”, the report also recommended.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, The Most Reverend Justin Welby, said there needed to be a “national common vision” for housing.

He told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday that such a vision could be compared to the establishment of the NHS in the 1940s and its aim to deliver health care free at the point of need.

“There is no equivalent in housing and there is no definition of affordable housing,” he said.

Mr Welby added: “The report calls on the Church to be sacrificial, not to take its maximum possible benefit, that is the challenge that I welcome and support.

“It calls on government and landowners in the same way.”

As part of its research, the commission interviewed representatives from more than 40 church-linked housing projects across the country.

Initiatives cited in the report include almshouses in Thatcham, Berkshire, affordable micro-homes in Cambridge and a church hall converted to accommodate homeless young people in Blackburn, Lancashire.

To add impetus to such initiatives, Mr Welby has submitted a General Synod motion which recognises that “housing and communities are part of the mission and ministry of the Church of England”.

A newly appointed “Bishop for Housing”, Guli Francis-Dehqani – currently Bishop of Loughborough, and an executive team will “embed this vision within the Church” and support dioceses in “using their land well,” the commission report said.

Overall, the report argued that homes should be sustainable, safe, stable, sociable and satisfying.

It criticised the housing policy track record of successive governments, which it said were characterised “by short-term interventions and announcements, and an extraordinary focus on the annual rate of new build”.

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The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby (Steve Parsons/PA)

The report argued that housing needs were “too important to be dictated by short term, narrow, party political objectives”.

Over the last 20 years, three million homes were built in England, the commission highlighted, but said this been accompanied by the addition of 2.6 million households renting privately.

It called on the Government to provide greater protection for private sector tenants through longer-term security of tenure and placing a duty of care on all landlords.

The commission also urged ministers to review the social security system because it “fails” to provide adequate housing support for low-income household and recommended the restoration of Local Housing Allowances to median rents in each local area.

The Government should maximise public land use for affordable housing, and commit to improve and reduce the need for temporary accommodation, the report said.

Increased public capital subsidy would help “bridge the gap” between open housing market prices and affordable prices, it argued.

Commissioners also said the “cladding crisis” must be addressed with “real urgency”, adding that the Government should commit to remove unsafe cladding on all residential blocks by June 2022 and protect for leaseholders from remediation costs.

Mr Welby welcomed the report’s “challenge to the Church”, which he said was “uniquely placed” to “work to build not just more houses but truly affordable houses and stronger communities”.

Charlie Arbuthnot, chair of the commission, said: “We have seen, first hand, the heart-wrenching conditions in which many are housed and this has to change. We truly hope that this report will be part of that process.”

Polly Neate, chief executive of homelessness charity Shelter, said: “Looking at how church land can be best used to fight homelessness is extremely welcome.

“Homelessness isn’t inevitable. It’s the result of decades of political failure to build social homes. This is the reason over a quarter of a million people in England are homeless and trapped in temporary accommodation during the pandemic – half of them children.

“The Church is right that homes have to be affordable to local people and tied to local incomes. This is what social housing does, which is why we want to see the Church, the government and other landowners play their part in building a new generation of social homes.”

A Government spokesman said: “We welcome and encourage the practical steps that the Church is taking to make more of their land available for affordable housing.

“We’ve delivered over 500,000 new affordable homes since 2010, and our new £11.5 billion Affordable Homes Programme will provide up to 180,000 new homes across the country – half of which will be for affordable and social rent.

“We’re supporting renters by extending notice periods and banning bailiff enforcement of evictions for all but the most serious cases.

“We’re spending billions of pounds to remove cladding so people’s homes are safe and the most dangerous cladding is already gone or going from almost all high-rise buildings.”