The Use of Church Buildings – 22nd February 2010

Lord Mawson: My Lords, there are nearly 50,000 church buildings in England; 16,200 of them belong to the Church of England, and the rest are mostly owned by the Catholic Church, the free churches and other denominations. Many sit on prime sites at the centre of their communities, yet they are often large and underused. There is a growing trend to return church buildings to their original function not just as places of worship, but places of assembly, service and celebration for the whole of their community. This ancient tradition, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London reminds us in the report Churches and Faith Buildings: Realising the Potential, has in more recent times been overlaid by distaste for mixing sacred and secular, but this dichotomy is increasingly being challenged. This underused asset base is considerable and, because of shortness of time, I want to focus my words today on church buildings, not on properties owned by other faith communities. As socio-economic conditions get tough and public finances are inevitably reduced, we need to relook at this property portfolio.

I know from many years of experience working with churches across the country, today as a non-stipendiary minister in the United Reformed Church, that the users of these buildings can often be small elderly congregations who find it very difficult to maintain or use effectively the asset that history has bequeathed to them. As many noble Lords will know, the Bromley-by-Bow Centre, which I founded in East London, began in such unpromising circumstances. Twenty-six years ago, I arrived as the minister to be greeted by 12 elderly people, all over 70, in a 200-seater church, sitting where they had always sat. It looked as though the dead had been carried out and no one had noticed.

By applying more entrepreneurial business principles and developing partnerships with the business, public and voluntary sectors, today we own a three-acre site that is run by 177 staff. The centre manages over 125 different activities each week, and on site there is a polyclinic, which brings together not just the biomedical model of healthcare but a wider range of other public services through an integrated approach. Two thousand people each week pass through the site, and with our partners, the housing company Poplar HARCA and Leaside Regeneration Ltd, we are putting together a £1 billion regeneration programme on an area of land the same size as the Olympic park on the other side of the road. Today, this church-based project has demonstrated new ways of delivering public services that are breaking new ground and challenging the traditional silos of government whose old-fashioned, expensive, bureaucratic approaches have so often failed to engage effectively with local residents and raise their quality of life.

Three years ago, I was approached by the then general secretary of my small denomination, the United Reformed Church. The church was becoming increasingly concerned about the scale of the problems it was facing with the condition and efficient use of its 1,700 buildings. I was told that many of them were listed and were a drain on limited resources. It was a serious problem that called for a new solution. Three and a half years later, my colleagues and I have created a new property agency for the United Reformed Church, called One Church, 100 Uses, and here I must declare an interest as a director of the company. This community interest company, a social enterprise, is now actively involved in the redevelopment of more than 30 church sites across England. Working with the Church of Scotland, we find that it shares similar problems. Yet underneath the apparent difficulties, we are discovering opportunities. We have discovered the rich rewards that appear when local communities begin to provide services for themselves. Not only does it save money, it creates healthier, more responsible people and stimulates an enterprise economy, which in turn encourages social cohesion. That is not a bad win-win scenario.

The church is fundamental to this outcome. Indeed, it has always played a central role in the care and service of local communities. The idea of the servant church goes back 2,000 years. The successful recent amendments to the Equality Bill illustrate that there is still a stomach in the Christian churches for us to play this important role. In past times, the church was coming to this caring/provider agenda from a position of authority and power. Today, it comes to it from a position of weakness and vulnerability. Perhaps that in itself is an opportunity.

If the church stops hiding behind committees and archdeacons, and instead shows strong business-like leadership, it can play an important neutral role in bringing partners to the table and in opening up conversations with the health provider, the local authority, the school, the housing provider and the shop. We are doing that on a number of sites across the country.

The church, the local school and the health centre are often the only long-term stable players in a local community, as governments change and countless new policies pass our door. Successive new policies can often further fragment local partnerships in practice and can prevent positive action. But few Ministers stay around long enough to observe the practical consequences of all this activity.

Politicians on all sides have been talking the language of joined-up thinking for some time now, but often it is not happening where it is most needed. Building partnerships is a complicated business, especially given the contradictory and disconnected commissioning processes that are in place. The connections and partnerships that could bring these buildings to life, deepen community cohesion and use limited funds far more efficiently, are just not happening. I could illustrate this in Glasgow, Bradford, Oldham, Gainsborough and Poole in Dorset, but there is not time. Believe me, it is a serious issue.

After 60 years of the state promising and often failing to provide, let us encourage choice and diversity. Let us not assume that the public sector will deliver it all. It will not. In hard economic times people have to huddle together for warmth. In rural communities, the pub, church, post office and village hall are often not sustainable on their own, which is why there are now 12 post offices in Anglican church buildings and in one of our developments we are looking at a police base in the church.

Perhaps I may describe just one example of a working partnership on the ground where we hope to develop some of these themes; namely, Harmans Water, Bracknell. The community centre across the square from the church closed due to health and safety concerns. A small library next to the church is open only 16 hours a week. A new housing development brings some Section 106 funding and a whole new community. The church, which is home to both the United Reformed Church and Anglican congregations, already hosts a range of community services and has insufficient space. With the support of the local authority and Bracknell Forest Homes-the local housing association-our plan is to build a new centre for the community with a wide range of community facilities, services and a new library. There will still be a librarian for probably only 16 hours a week, but it is hoped that the library, which perhaps will be next to a new cafe, will be accessible for more hours with self-service and will be joined by many other information providers. The police want a help point and the local children’s centre, the primary school and the college need a kitchen where families can learn about healthy living, et cetera.

So what are the key messages I should like the Minister to take from this debate? First, the credit crunch has caused many large-scale regeneration projects to stall. I know that because I am involved in one of them. However, often smaller-scale local developments involving church buildings and the clusters of buildings around them are being missed. Developments such as this are less risky and can provide a real opportunity to lift the local quality of an area. But they can happen only if everyone huddles together and pools their budgets.

To grasp these kinds of local opportunities we require focused leadership in the public sector and the churches. These projects do not happen by chance. We also need practical politicians experienced in the workings of the world. Church-based developments can provide them with an opportunity to redefine the role of the politician as the practical person and the bringer of partners to the table. This is where our politics will be renewed; not here in Westminster.

New Labour says that it believes in community, but this Government have often produced lots of strategies, policies, committees and legislation rather than getting involved in the practical realities of a local neighbourhood. I see little evidence that any future Government have woken up to this opportunity either. Politicians need to be grounded in real projects; the micro and the macro are connected, as any business person knows. I seek to present to the Minister today an opportunity that can enable us to use limited public funds more efficiently, to bring life to underused assets and to create social cohesion and a spirit of enterprise in some of our most vulnerable communities.

Finally, I encourage the Minister to take a closer look at these local opportunities to use public money more effectively. I ask Her Majesty’s Opposition whether it is not developments such as this that provide a practical opportunity in communities to explore what statements about a post-bureaucratic world might actually mean in practice.

I thank the Minister for taking part in this debate and the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, for a helpful discussion of this subject, and I look forward to hearing what they both have to say.