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It is interesting that the “New” Tories — under the direction of puppet master Mr Cummings — are gently distancing themselves from the “Old” Conservatives’ “small ticket” project (i.e. less than £200million), which have failed to complete or even start.

For example, the abortive costs for the proposed London Garden Bridge were over £53m; the Croxley Rail Line, £25million spent, but still no cigar, and the infamous starter homes initiative, which cost £174m, but not one house has yet been built because the legislation has “yet to come into force”.

Small and micro business property developers can console themselves by clicking onto the award winning website: Wreck of the Week (www.wreckoftheweek.co.uk) — the digital equivalent of catnip for those whose designs are grand.

The section of the site that I find most illuminating is titled Public Property, which indicates that as at the end of 2019:

  • There were 321 government properties to let
  • There were 26 “surplus” courts and tribunal buildings to be sold including, Blackfriars Crown Court
  • There were 1900 properties available by way of auction
  • National Grid was selling 13 properties

Wreck of the Week doesn’t take into account those residential and commercial properties that are vacant “empties” within the UK’s local authority boundaries, but is estimated that there are at least 200,000 empty properties. But, no-one really knows as the local authorities are so reluctant to make use of their powers of urban regeneration or enforce the empty property management orders.

The Church of England also publishes an online list of decommissioned churches for disposal; there are 20 available at any one time.

Clearly, the sale of so many churches reflects the on-going secularisation of the country – the Church of England is a minnow in the league table of world churches and there is clearly an over-supply of places of worship. So, the question is: could we make use of these closed, friendless churches to house the homeless and/or have them re-purposed for other community uses. And, if so, how?

In a recent article in the Times, the Children’s Commissioner pointed out that local authorities were spending millions of pounds through the private sector in seeking “wrap around care” facilities for the “young underinvested”. At the same time the Church Commissioners — the Church of England’s property division with investments of around £4.8bn — is seeking to provide a return to its “shareholder” of inflation plus 5% through stocks, shares and investments , including Meadowhall shopping centre.

On one hand the private sector has moved into an area (care provision) historically provided by the Established Church (for example St Cross Alms Houses, near Winchester, which dates back to the 11th century) and on the other, the Established Church is effectively becoming an investment vehicle through selling off its capital assets for cash.

St Cross provides sheltered accommodation for around 20 individuals and supports a further 100 people from the wider Hampshire community. Perhaps with a little vision these failed or friendless churches might be used to provide a similar facility rather than just being sold off as potential 4-bedroomed houses with half an acre of land for occupation by a single family.

In the Queen’s speech the “new” government promised to review the Commonhold system of property ownership: this sits between freehold and leasehold and has been been used for many years in New Zealand — where flats have been sold on a simple freehold basis rather than the complex leasehold system that we have in England and Wales.

Over the millennia that we have had churches in the UK they have always performed a variety of roles, in addition to their primary function as a place to pray. In medieval times they provided shelter from battle and offered sanctuary to the oppressed; their bells marked the passing of each day and provided a focal point for communities. Today, they are mainly used for celebrating births, deaths and marriages, and they still provide a place for quiet contemplation.

The reality is that the numbers attending church continue to decline and churches are being sold off, but if we could re-purpose these often quite beautiful buildings — for use by the homeless, charities or other deserving causes, by an imaginative application of the Commonhold system — they could still remain at the heart of their respective communities.

Amen to that, I say.

Tony Houghton, January 2020