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-
I know from many years of experience working with churches across the country, today as a non-
By applying more entrepreneurial business principles and developing partnerships with the business, public and voluntary sectors, today we own a three-
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-
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-
The church, the local school and the health centre are often the only long-
Politicians on all sides have been talking the language of joined-
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-
So what are the key messages I should like the Minister to take from this debate? First, the credit crunch has caused many large-
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-
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-
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.