Making space for worship

Calls for churches to sell land for affordable housing highlight a long-running conflict, Philip Smith and Susan Parham report.

Places of worship: councils must think creatively to resist further losses to residential use
Places of worship: councils must think creatively to resist further losses to residential use

The level and type of provision of places of worship is a hot topic in many communities, mainly in larger towns and cities. On one hand many faith groups, notably the new Christian churches and Muslim groups, are looking for new or expanded space and there is a high level of unauthorised use. On the other, the Church of England is disposing of property and the National Housing Federation is calling for more to be released for housing.

Most people, whether believer or atheist, would agree that places of worship are often iconic buildings that create a sense of place and a source of community pride. As well as meeting spiritual needs, faith communities have a long tradition of engagement in community service provision and social enterprise. They have the potential to reach the most marginalised and excluded groups by providing community services and engagement.

Without a positive, planned approach, there is a real danger of a significant under-provision of places of worship. At best, this will result in growing frustration among faith groups and the wider community. At worst, it may result in discord and racial unrest in towns and cities.

As with other land-use conflicts, the planning system should respond positively. CAG, Land Use Consultants and Diverse Ethics have explored this issue in recent studies for the Greater London Authority and Oadby and Wigston Borough Council in Leicestershire. Both projects relied on a considerable degree of engagement with the broad range of faith groups and communities.

High land values deter central locations

In London, the pressing issues are the provision of places of worship and associated facilities for the growing congregations of some faith groups, and in particular Pentecostal churches largely made up of African and Caribbean congregations. In Oadby, it is Muslim faith groups that appear to have substantial unmet needs. We found many historical reasons why this is the case.

High land values and site scarcity often prohibit development or extension in sustainable locations close to town centres and transport nodes. A key problem is that places of worship fall in the D1 non-residential institutions use class, which means that they compete with health and education centres, museums and libraries. Many D1 buildings have planning conditions that preclude their use as places of worship. There are also significant pressures in some areas to convert places of worship to residential use.

As the potential stock of buildings diminishes, faith communities either have to compete with higher-value uses or seek alternative options, including land designated for employment purposes or green belt locations. This problem is reflected in the substantial number of unauthorised places of worship - for example congregations that meet in industrial and commercial buildings. The high number of appeals in this area is symptomatic of the underlying problem of a lack of a clear and plausible evidence base.

Local development frameworks are required to be evidence based, which means that local authorities need to assess the need for social as well as other forms of infrastructure. Despite this, there is a noticeable absence of guidance on how the planning system should meet the aspirations of different faith communities. As a result, local planning policy on identifying and meeting their needs tends to be limited.

Following our study, last autumn's proposed revisions to the London Plan include specific reference to places of worship as necessary social infrastructure. "It is important that the needs of all in society, including for example faith groups, are tackled - if necessary through co-ordinated action with neighbouring boroughs," the revision proposals maintain.

To determine the quantitative and qualitative need for places of worship, the following main factors should be assessed in consultation with faith groups:

- The range of principal faith groups present in an area.

- The number of members of each faith group.

- The number of regular worshippers.

- The number of places of worship for each faith group.

- The extent to which each faith group's needs is being met within the borough or sub-regionally.

- The capacity of current provision within the borough and sub-region.

Based on the nature of the land use and in response to faith groups' views, our research highlights the importance of town centre locations for places of worship. Central locations are generally more accessible by sustainable transport modes and they can benefit from the contribution to vitality and viability that places of worship can offer. On the other hand, central locations are also more costly. Assessing how the need for worship space can be met is particularly challenging given the high cost of land and buildings in town centre locations. Innovative approaches are therefore required.

Options include use of existing buildings or D1 land, shared use of existing places of worship, use of employment land and provision within large-scale redevelopment and masterplanning processes, including the deployment of section 106 agreements. The reactive approach currently adopted by many local authorities, requiring a proportion of new development to be allocated for D1 use, rarely appears to result in the development of places of worship in town centre locations. It is clear that an alternative approach is called for.

Philip Smith is a principal at Land Use Consultants. Susan Parham is a director at CAG Consultants.

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