Underpinning the UK’s housing crisis – quite literally – is a broken land system. Financial speculation has fuelled the astronomical rise of land prices which has led to unaffordable rents and extortionate house prices. Increasingly we are seeing a two-tier system in the UK: a privileged few able to access home ownership, whilst many of us are trapped in an insecure and rapidly expanding private rental sector, often at the mercy of unscrupulous buy-to-let landlords, as social housing falls into dramatic decline.

In this context, owning land is extremely lucrative. NEF’s research into the injustice of the land system often points towards landowners with little interest in providing affordable housing – but one particular big landowner in the UK is different. The Church of England owns vast swathes of land and has an explicit remit to advocate for greater social justice.

Whilst the church puts in tireless work to provide emergency support to those affected by homelessness, its land portfolio and position of influence also offer the chance to address the housing crisis at a more fundamental level: helping to prevent the shameful phenomenon of rising homelessness in the first place by addressing the root problem of unaffordable housing.

I’ve been speaking with church leaders, and it’s clear that there is a widespread desire within the church to take radical action on the housing crisis, but the steps towards this are far less clear.

The lack of centralised governance over church land means that unfortunately there is no silver bullet’ solution the church can throw its weight behind. But there are a number of dedicated church leaders trialling options to use church resources for affordable housing. Last Friday, NEF convened a panel of these figures to share their experiences and recommendations. 

It’s clear that there is a widespread desire within the church to take radical action on the housing crisis

Reverend Jeremy Fraser, Area Dean of Newham, and Reverend Graham Hunter, of St. John’s Hoxton, recounted their experiences of leading schemes using dis- or under-used church-owned land to develop affordable housing – and the challenges they have encountered.

Graham found that legislation blocking developments in close proximity to listed buildings posed a serious setback to the development of affordable housing on the large car park outside his Grade II listed church. Graham also faced extremely high up-front costs for submitting planning documents. He found that the culture within council planning committees favoured big developers over affordable, community-led planning proposals, down to misplaced sense of trust that partnerships with the former were less risky.

Jeremy also emphasised this problem of planning committee culture, and of financial barriers to building housing without the support of big developers. Planning committees also looked for proposals which would offer best value’ for land transactions. They interpreted best value’ to mean highest financial return’ – rather than the social value offered by new affordable housing.

Jeremy and Graham both explained the ways in which they had circumvented the considerable challenges they had encountered. Jeremy benefitted from both a supportive relationship and the pledge of a loan from the Greater London Authority (GLA) – and is now advocating for the GLA and local authorities to do this more widely. Graham is hoping to use a charitable asset swap’ with a local school, so that the housing development could be built on the school playground (further away from the listed church building) and the playground relocated to the church carpark.

Culture within council planning committees favoured big developers over affordable, community-led planning proposals

The final two panellists, community organiser Miriam Brittenden and community activist Selina Begum, talked about their experience of forming a community land trust. The formation of the trust led to more social cohesion and a sense of control within the community, but also had limitations (some of which NEF has outlined previously). In their case, none of the houses due to be built through the trust will be for rent, so won’t be able to support those exposed to poor living conditions and insecurity, at the sharpest edge of the private rental sector. 

The discussion during the event showed the passionate engagement with the housing crisis from within the church, and the desire for the church to throw its weight behind effective, systemic solutions:

  • Challenge the narrow understanding of best value’ and the failure to recognise that social value can be a substitute for highest financial return’.
  • Tackle the restrictions on building close to listed buildings.
  • End unnecessary fees for initial stage planning proposals which inhibit community-led plans.
  • Call for local and regional authorities to support affordable housing developments through loans.

In the shorter term, churches of all denominations should use their position of influence at community level to support tenants in the private rental sector facing disrepair and no-fault evictions. The church needs to speak with a strong, collective voice if it wants to tackle the housing crisis.

Are you a member of the Church of England? Do you want to learn more about what the church can do to tackle the housing crisis? Contact emily.​scurrah@​neweconomics.​org

Image: Stu Smith (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)