Church of England embarks on its affordable housing mission

St Aldates Houses - Gloucester diocese - church housing project 2

A recent church report called for government action to build more affordable homes, but as one of the UK’s biggest landowners it is also taking matters into its hands. Elizabeth Hopkirk reports

Some of the biggest barriers to the Church of England using more of its land for genuinely affordable housing could be overcome before the end of this year, the chair of the C of E’s housing commission predicts. Thousands of high-quality homes could be developed as a result, says Charlie Arbuthnot, a specialist in social housing financing who led the archbishops’ Commission on Housing, Church and Community whose report, Coming Home, was launched last month.

Individual churches and members of their congregations are engaged in small-scale housing schemes across the country, often for vulnerable communities. But, collectively, the Church of England owns almost 200,000 acres of land in England, more than the Duke of Westminster. What is stopping it putting bricks and mortar where its mouth is?

“It’s true the Church is a huge landowner but its ownership is incredibly complex,” says Graham Hunter, vicar of St John’s Hoxton in the east end of London, who has spent the past five years trying unsuccessfully to build flats for affordable rent on the edge of his churchyard. “A huge amount is arable farming land. It doesn’t come with infrastructure like schools and is not where people need homes. Owning half a forest is not the same as owning an ideal development site.”

Where the Church does own land in places with high demand, such as Hoxton, there are other complications – including the National Planning Policy Framework, which can be interpreted by local planning departments as forbidding any development that would harm the setting of a listed building, like Hunter’s imposing grade II* Georgian church.

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