In his book Re-imagining Britain: Foundations for Hope, published earlier this year, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, included a chapter on housing. In it he says:
“It is well understood that the UK has seen a growing problem with housing supply over many years, and the result has been a very sharp increase in the cost of housing in many parts of the country.”
The imperative of increasing the housing supply is indeed widely accepted – at least in principle. Welby is also right to add that it is not just about numbers:
“We need also to ensure that houses are built and communities developed in such a way as to cause local economies to thrive and thus local communities to thrive also.”
He is rightly concerned that “the era of tower blocks and Corbusier- style brutalism” has prompted “complaints about the absence of true community.”
So far, so good. The difficulty comes in how to tackle the problem. He comes up with a long list of extra demands to impose on development, including a requirement for “centres of counselling and support” – hardly likely to increase supply. He also calls for more tax and spending: “The idea of a location tax, or wealth tax on the underlying value of property, needs re-examining.”
Welby adds that:
“Local community transformation boards could be tasked with overseeing these issues to ensure that responsibility is taken collectively. They would also ensure that private developers, public sector providers and voluntary groups are all lined up to facilitate its success, as well as large-scale landowners, including the Church of England.”
That’s welcome to have a passing acknowledgment of Anglican landholdings. The Church Commissioners own and manage around 100,000 acres of land overall. But a spokesman adds: “Most of the land owned by the church is owned by the dioceses, which we don’t look after from here at Church House.” Supposing “most” meant another 200,000 acres. That would take the tally – of the Commissioners and the dioceses up to 300,000 acres – equivalent to the size of Bedfordshire. If “most” meant an extra 300,000 that gets the total up to 400,000 – equivalent to the size of Hertfordshire. The average density of new residential development is 31 homes per hectare, which is 12.4 per acre. Let’s set a lower density rate – so that the homes can have a garden, there’s space “for centres of counselling and support” and so on. Say 10 homes an acre. So if that land was developed it would be equivalent to three million or four million new homes.
In fairness some development is underway. The Church Commissioners annual report says:
“The strategic land team had a busy year, making good progress with mainly residential schemes across the country. A planning consent for 500 homes was issued in Ryhope and planning applications were made for distribution centres at Peterborough (1.6m sq. ft.) and Exeter Gateway (1.2m sq. ft.), and for 300 new homes at Falmouth.
“We also successfully marketed consented land at Ely North Phase 1 (200 homes), Lincoln (500 homes), Sherburn (120 homes), Coxhoe (50 units) and Wetheral (50 units). In addition to providing much needed new homes, including affordable houses, these sales will generate in excess of £20m to help fund the work and mission of the Church across the country.”
So permission for 800 new homes. Sales of 920 new homes. Better than nothing, certainly. But pretty derisory when set against the potential.
Two or three noughts should be added on the end. Within the total, the scale of the projects should vary. Sometimes it could be relatively large scale development on agricultural land near villages – my advice to the Church Commissioners if they want to win planning consent for such development is to propose traditional design using local materials, something that blends in. That is the best way for “local communities to thrive”. In many ways the Church should be in a strong position to turn Nimbys into Yimbys. Congregations may have fallen but a million people still attend Anglican services each week. That should still provide powerful local networks to guide the Church on new housing that would be acceptable and to champion the cause of getting it built. If a new school is needed to cater for a growing community then the Church is well placed to provide it.
But some building proposals might be more modest. Typically churches themselves are beautiful. But often church halls are ugly modern buildings in poor repair with flat roofs and wasted space around them. Many could be extended or redeveloped in a way that would make them both more attractive and also provide new homes.
The housing shortage means many people are struggling to pay their rent, let alone save up enough money to buy. Many families are in severe overcrowding or squalid temporary accommodation. In such circumstances it is not good enough for the Church to sit on its 200,000 acres (or 300,000 or 400,000 – it doesn’t even know how much it owns.) Increasing the housing supply is not only politically right and economically right. It is a moral issue. Yet I doubt anyone would even attempt to claim that the Church is already doing everything it possibly could. The current performance is a disgrace.
The Bible says:
“Then he which had received the one talent came and said, Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed. And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine. His lord answered and said unto him, Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed.”
Instead of the Church getting on with it they are waiting for “local community transformation boards.” The Archbishop of Canterbury criticises the Government for not doing enough….
“Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”
One final point. Welby might claim that the Church of England is not some personal dictatorship where he can always get his way. Fair enough. He could say that he privately agrees that it’s housing record is pathetic and that he is most embarrassed by it. Then let him say so. An acknowledgement of the truth would be a welcome start.