Lime Legal

Houses of the holy

Published 18 February 2024

Robert Bullard reports on how empty or underused church property in Scotland is being turned into affordable housing.

For years the congregation debated what to do. Should they struggle on or close down, reinvesting the proceeds from the sale of their buildings into community projects? Each idea had the backing of some of the congregation, but in the end they voted a ‘third way’.

In 2015, the church decided to sell its plot of land, not to a developer but to a local housing association – with two conditions. First, that a smaller church be constructed as a replacement. Second, that affordable housing should be built on the remainder of the site.

The new church opened last year. Its smaller size means the maintenance costs are easily manageable. Better still, it is fully accessible and its open plan and kitchen facilities make it widely used by local community groups. Affordable housing has been built around it: 18 one- and two-bedroom flats above, and four three-bedroom houses behind.

‘I don’t believe in hanging onto our assets,’ says Rev Morrison. ‘Giving to the community and helping 50 or 60 people have a better quality of life by improving their housing – is more important than anything we can do.’

‘It’s a win-win situation,’ says Gordon Cameron, development director of Port of Leith housing association. ‘The congregation gets a modern place to worship, with affordable housing built.’ The church is more than a place for worship, he says, but a venue for social activities as well. ‘It is hugely important to retain these facilities in the community.’

Gemma Blackie and her partner were one of the first tenants to move into the flats. Before that they had been on the council’s housing list for four years, living with her mother. ‘I love the flat. It’s amazing,’ says Blackie, aged 27, who recently gave birth to twins. ‘We’ve got to move. The flat is too small for us now – but I would rather stay here.’

The congregation’s two other requests were also accommodated in the church’s redevelopment. The stained glass windows have been transferred – they are now on proud display, more visible than before – and, at a cost of £35,000, the former organ has been rebuilt and incorporated into the new church. A steel plate and 18 inches of sound insulation in the roof prevent the organ from being heard in the flats above.

Scottish Churches Housing Action, a charity which brings churches togethor to tackle homelessness, holds up the redevelopment as an example of how church property – empty and underused buildings, but also land – can be used to help address the country’s shortage of affordable housing. The idea is not unique, says Alastair Cameron, chief executive of Scottish Churches Housing Action, but there are reasons why it has not been widely done.

Many churches, he explains, feel they are obliged by law to ‘maximise the value’ of their assets when they sell them. (In Leith, a private developer offered the church nearly twice what it received from the housing association.) As a result, affordable housing tends to be considered only as a last resort, when selling on the open market does not work.

But clarification Scottish Churches Housing Action has received from the office of the Scottish charity register indicates that maximising value need not be the driving factor in a sale.

Instead, trustees’ primary responsibility is to their constitution and their religion. Unless these mention the need to maximise value, this need not be a primary factor.

Light bulb moment

Lots of churches have considered similar plans for a number of years. Hearing the legal clarification, says Alastair Cameron, has acted as ‘a kind of light bulb moment’ for them to go forward. With funding from the Scottish government, Scottish Churches Housing Action has identified almost 50 examples of churches converted into affordable housing, and it is now encouraging other churches, from all denominations, to follow suit.

To date it has helped 41 enquiries; an additional 21 projects are at feasibility stage, and seven are nearing completion.

But the idea of converting underused church property into affordable housing is not just happening in Scotland. In England, Housing Justice is engaged in a similar project, and the charity commissioners for England and Wales have provided similar legal clarification. Like Scottish Churches Housing Action, Housing Justice has been documenting examples, providing help to churches interested in pursuing the idea and lobbying the government for support. Last year it launched an internet-based resource for those wanting help.

In a survey of churches in England, one-third of Christian denominations identified maximising value as the main barrier to releasing their property for affordable housing. The other barriers were having the time and experience to do it and planning restrictions.

Not all of the developments, however, have required complete demolition of a church. In Ambleside, Cumbria, the Methodists were keen to make a contribution to the area’s housing problem. House prices were the highest in the district, more than 100 households were on the council waiting list and, as a result, young people were leaving the area.

In an innovative arrangement the church was converted into 15 affordable homes with the proceeds used to build a new ecumenical centre that the Methodists share with the Anglicans, who provided the land. The fact that two denominations came together, and that the development had to adhere to the strict planning regulations of what is a national park, provides encouragement to other churches.

‘It’s a win-win situation: the congregation gets a modern place to worship and new affordable housing gets built’

Some churches meanwhile, such as the Church of England dioceses of Worcester and of Oxfordshire, have sold their land at reduced rents to rural housing trusts. The number of homes created may be small, but in rural areas it still helps.

Scottish Churches Housing Action’s target is to create 60 affordable homes from church property per year (housing around 130 people), for the next 10 years. It is a fraction of the 10,000 affordable homes a year that it says Scotland needs, but with more support from churches it believes the contribution could be considerably more.

Alastair Cameron is confident that the experience of working with the church in Leith will help Scottish Churches Housing Action meet its target. They have a redevelopment model they can use elsewhere, a proven track record, and the contacts with surveyors and architects – some provide their time free, on a pro bono basis – to advise churches what is and is not possible. And although the Leith project took nine years from start to finish, Cameron believes that this was due to special circumstances and can be brought down to two or three years. His main wish for the future is that more churches would take a proactive approach, like he says the Roman Catholic diocese of Galloway has. Until recently the church there, like others, had an incomplete register of what it owned, and no strategy for knowing what do with what they did. Then the Bishop appointed someone to look into the issue and develop a plan of action.

Iain Kirkpatrick is the estates manager. ‘The rich and valuable sites were sold off during the past 10 to 15 years,’ he says. ‘Churches tended to rely on lay communities for deciding things, and only deferred to surveyors and architects when it was too late.’

Kirkpatrick has now prepared a database of around 100 church properties across the diocese. At least 20 per cent are not in use or have sufficient land or property to be used for affordable housing. Churches tended to see these properties as liabilities, says Kirkpatrick, but they are actually worth millions.

‘I am convinced this model of using churches for affordable housing can be replicated,’ said Rev Morrison.

‘So many churches are not appropriate for the 21st century. They spend too much time and effort maintaining buildings beyond their sell-by date.’

‘The lack of affordable housing is a social evil,’ said Alastair Cameron. ‘We have demonstrated this approach has mileage: it benefits people and can be done affordably. It now needs systematic cooperation from churches, rather than ad-hoc support.