On 17th January 2023, the House of Lords debated the Levelling Up Bill in its second reading. The Bishop of Bristol spoke in the debate, raising concerns about financial support for parish churches and the services they provide, and the importance of housing and development planning:
The Lord Bishop of Bristol: My Lords, it is good to be here considering this much-awaited piece of legislation. I declare my interest as a member of the Church Commissioners board, as set out in the register. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Anderson, on her powerful maiden speech and on the stories of her female antecedents. I look forward to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Jackson.
I am also grateful to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Chartres, for his speech on the role of heritage in levelling up. As the current Church of England lead bishop for church buildings, I want to look at one detail in this Bill, which provides an opportunity for the clarification of the law on local council funding for parish church buildings. Across the country, parish churches are vital to the flourishing of their local communities. Initiatives have brought about much transformation in recent years. Exemplifying this is the current Warm Welcome campaign. Since its launch, thousands of churches and other places of worship across the country have welcomed 2.6 million people, providing space for relationship and community building and practical support as the days, like today, get colder. Add to this the ongoing work done in every region by church-run food banks, debt advice centres, domestic abuse support services and so much more. As your Lordships can imagine, I want to live in a world where such services are not needed, but it is important that action can be taken now to address systemic inequalities.
Moving towards that end, I believe it would help greatly to ensure that parish church buildings and their environments are safe to play their vital role in the community. The clarification which is currently required is whether the Local Government Act 1894, which forbids parish town and community councils grant-aiding places of worship, has been superseded by the Local Government Act 1972, which states that such grants are permissible. The perceived conflicts between these laws gave rise to advice from the National Association of Local Councils in 2017 that funding a place of worship might result in legal challenge, making councils very nervous about doing so as matters stand. We are aware of several instances of local councils ceasing long-standing financial support of their local churches since this advice was issued. Previous attempts to clarify this in guidance have not so far provided the necessary reassurance. Clarification in this Bill would therefore increase confidence and reduce ambiguity for parish councils across England. I hope that the Minister will consider this, and I look forward to discussing it further.
The second area of opportunity that I wish to raise concerns housing and planning. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford regrets that she cannot be in her place today, so I will speak very briefly to matters that she hopes to raise during the progress of the Bill as lead bishop for housing. I share her interest and that of many in this Chamber.
As noble Lords have already indicated, the current Section 106 system has underdelivered on social homes. We have heard, not least in the immediately preceding speech, of the shocking failure of investment and development. An ambitious programme of affordable housing is essential to a real levelling up of this country. We join calls from Shelter and other organisations for the removal of hope value from the Land Compensation Act 1961, and for the guarantee that the infrastructure levy will deliver at least as many social rented homes. We also urge a rebalancing of affordable housing tenures to prioritise social rent and make affordable housing an on-site requirement for new housing developments. As stated simply in the report by the Archbishops’ Commission on Housing, Church and Community, Coming Home:
“We need more truly affordable homes”.
Finally, I wish to raise an area of concern in the Bill, which I share with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. Clause 101 would allow the appropriate authority to apply to the Secretary of State for planning permission where a development of Crown land in England is considered to be of national importance. This would bypass local concerns, particularly around controversial developments such as permanent asylum accommodation centres. I ask for this to be looked at again.
In conclusion, the Bill presents an opportunity to address inequalities that hinder the welfare of many; let us seize it.