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Michael Lyons: 'Church of England can help solve housing crisis'

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The Church of England and supermarket chains should enter the housebuilding market as developers, according to Michael Lyons

Speaking to theAJ’s sister publicationConstruction News after the recent publication of the Labour-backed Lyons Housing Review, non-executive chairman of the English Cities Fund said landholders including the Church of England, supermarket chains and universities should be encouraged to become housing developers, creating ‘a much more diverse building industry’.

‘Tesco and Sainsbury’s, for instance, have started commissioning houses above their metro supermarkets. What’s to stop the Church of England [from doing the same] with its landholdings?’

He added: ‘I’m not suggesting that all of a sudden Sainsbury’s just becomes a housebuilder or that the Church of England gives up its work and just becomes a housebuilder, but they can contribute.’

In July, supermarket giant Tesco revealed it was working on plans to deliver more than 4,000 homes on its landbank by 2017 as part of a £1billion housing programme.

Tesco said at the time it would either build the houses itself, through its development arm Spenhill, or sell the sites to housebuilders.

The retailer has since revealed a £250m profits black hole, which has led to the suspension of several senior staff. It was contacted by Construction News for comment on its current housebuilding plans.

Lyons said he would prefer to see supermarkets and churches getting involved in projects as development partners, rather than offloading land, as it would allow new homes to be delivered more quickly.

‘If you don’t have to buy the land, you can get the infrastructure built much more easily,’ he said.

He acknowledged that companies or organisations that have shrunk may be more inclined to sell off their surplus land, but said they could achieve better returns from seeing the development through.

Lyons’ 39 recommendations include:

Use it or lose it Councils should have powers to levy a charge equivalent to council tax on developers if land allocated in a plan is not brought forward within five years.

SME builders A package of support measures to facilitate lending to small housebuilders and make it easier to obtain outline planning permission on sites of fewer than 10 units.

Local authorities New powers to support land assembly in Housing Growth Areas, and to set up New Homes Corporations as delivery agents.

Planning All local authorities required to submit a local plan by December 2016.

Funding Central government streams should be consolidated and devolved to city or county regions.


Judith Derbyshire, head of Housing Justice’s Faith in Affordable Housing project, which supports the use of church land and property for affordable housing, said a number of dioceses were already developing affordable schemes in partnership with housing associations.

She said there was appetite from churches to help tackle the housing crisis by providing land or under-used properties for conversion, but that more funding was needed to make it successful.

Asked how the government could encourage churches to develop housing, Derbyshire said: ‘The big thing [would be] to increase the grants to housing associations and others to be able to actually do it.

‘We really need more money per unit to be able to do a sensitive conversion of a church. Some of the schemes we’ve looked at have fallen at the financial hurdle because they can’t get them to stack up financially.’

Lyons said Labour’s proposed ‘New Homes Corporations’ could help facilitate discussions and plans with local landowners, but he did not believe ‘special incentives’ would be needed.

The proposed corporations would be established by local authorities working with communities, housing associations and developers to assemble land and build out new residential sites quickly.

A spokesman for the Church Commissioners, who manage investments to support the Church of England, said the Commissioners had “a long history of creating sustainable new communities across the country, working with local authorities, existing residents and housebuilders to deliver homes”.

He welcomed “any recommendations associated with simplifying and speeding up the planning process, allowing suitably identified land to be delivered to the market more quickly and efficiently, to allow a greater number of new homes to be provided to those who need them”.

Lyons added that the UK also needed more contractors to build homes, as well as more land to build on.

Building contractors have the skills to build houses ‘but don’t want to get involved in finding land, securing planning permission and selling the houses’, he said.

The Lyons Housing Review was commissioned by Labour leader Ed Miliband to carry out an independent review of housing policy and draw up a roadmap of the changes needed to deliver at least 200,000 homes a year by 2020.

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