BRitain has a housing problem. There are too few houses to meet the demand, and those that exist are unaffordable for many. On June 9, Boris Johnson outlined proposals to allow people to use the benefits to pay mortgages and to give tenants of housing associations (private non-profit organizations regulated by the government) the right to buy their properties. They do nothing to solve the big problem: many more houses need to be built. Even if you’re one of Britain’s biggest landowners, that’s easier said than done.
The Church of England has approximately 200,000 acres (80,000 hectares) under its control. In 2021, an independent housing commission set up by the church released a report saying it should use its land to build more affordable housing. Last month, the church announced it would form a housing association with the aim of becoming “a major public housing provider” nationwide. But a host of temporal obstacles stand in his way.
For one thing, much of the church’s land is in the wrong place: remote rural parishes may not be where the needs are. On the other hand, much of the rest of his land is locked behind a strict legal framework. Under Church law, thousands of acres of “glebe” land, the sale or lease of which helps pay the salaries of office workers, must go to the highest bidder. And although charities like the church can sell non-glebe land for less than the highest bid when a bidder has a similar social goal, the rules are generally interpreted to maximize profits, says Laura Chesham, a lawyer. charity at VWV, a law firm. . As of last year, 30% of the 28,500 new homes planned on church grounds have been designated as affordable housing.
The housing commission is pushing for a change in church law that would allow glebe land to be sold at a lower price when a sale advances charitable purposes. Broader changes in the law can also give the church more autonomy over who it sells to. In April, the High Court ruled that trustees of charities can take climate change into account when making investment decisions, even if it means selling for less. If environmental protection goes hand in hand with charitable goals, housing for the poor may well be too.
Selling and developing land isn’t the only way the church can increase housing supply. As many as 356 churches that could be redeveloped into affordable housing are expected to close over the next five years. But it is common for buildings of this type to sit empty for years. Currently, for example, dioceses must obtain a report on the architectural and historical significance of a church before proposing its closure. Streamlining these requirements could save many buildings from purgatory.
The church seems to have recognized that it cannot do much with its own assets. The new housing company also plans to take on cheap debt, secured by its assets and the new properties it acquires, in order to buy social housing “on a significant scale”. To build a more just society, the church needs more than land; it needs financial markets. ■