January 10, 2018
Kirk just doesn’t get it
In many communities, particularly some of the most disadvantaged, it is the faith groups that are the stalwarts of community life, running youth clubs, mother and toddlers’ groups, providing space and volunteers for foodbanks and so on. They often fulfil the role of what is commonly referred to as a community anchor. But there seems to be a distinct separation between the local people who commit to a church in so many different ways and the church hierarchy who manage the physical assets of the church but just don’t get the concept of community assets. Lesley Riddoch takes aim.
TIS the season to be jolly – so how about some goodwill from the Church of Scotland? Surprisingly the Kirk has been acting like a veritable Scrooge in 2017, blocking urban communities who want to take over old churches it wants to sell to the highest bidder. Even though community right-to-buy legislation means the Kirk would get full market value for its old churches. Even though the Kirk has all sorts of progressive policy about community empowerment. Even though former Moderator Alison Elliott chaired the Land Reform Review Group. And even though any reading of the New Testament suggests the church should be on the side of local people not spivs and speculators.
Yet several cases suggest the Church of Scotland has become an unco-operative and obstructive landowner, at a time when communities all over Scotland are being encouraged to wrestle back control of buildings and parcels of land after centuries of disempowerment.
One example is the London Road Church at the top of Easter Road in Edinburgh.
The Church of Scotland closed it on January 31, 2017, against the congregation’s wishes, and suggested they merge with the congregation at neighbouring Meadowbank. An inaugural public meeting attended by 110 people was held at the end of April, but though the church knew about this and an associated Facebook campaign they put the building up for sale in May. The newly formed In:Spire East End group asked the general trustees of the Church of Scotland to withdraw the kirk from the market while the community bid progressed. Its request was refused.
So the group pressed on with an application to register its interest in a community buyout bid. Their case was simple. The Calton/Hillside/Easter Road/Abbeyhill area of Edinburgh is home to 11,000 people but there is no community centre. There are buildings and local churches with rentable space but almost all are fully subscribed. Any land that does become available is snapped up for student accommodation. So the sale of the London Road kirk presented a rare opportunity for an urban community keen to recreate its own new social and economic heart.
But that didn’t happen. The application to register interest was turned down by the Scottish Government in November after months of local effort because the community’s bid was apparently too “late” – folk hadn’t started organising to buy the kirk until they knew it was actually up for sale. That would hardly seem “late” in everyday parlance – communities would have to be semi-psychic and unbelievably motivated to organise round the clock on the off-chance a big project was just round the corner.
To register an interest, a community must form a company, appoint directors (who could be personally liable if the undertaking goes belly up), create a business plan and get signatures of 15 per cent of the eligible population to move forward. Think about it. An entire Westminster Government has been unable to produce any tangible plans surrounding Brexit, despite having a mass of civil servants at their command. But bureaucrats expect un-resourced communities to get all their financial, managerial, democratic and technological ducks in a row hyper fast – and that’s particularly difficult in urban areas with less social cohesion than the tightly-knit rural communities where buyouts have generally occurred to date.
Anyway, the application by In:Spire East End effectively froze the Kirk’s efforts to sell the church, but the knockback by the Scottish Government unfroze it again. In:Spire was advised that only an interim interdict would give them a realistic chance of appeal, but that could leave them liable for up to £100,000 in lost value, should the community lose.
So they have given up.
A Church of Scotland spokesman said: “The Church of Scotland will work with any community group that has the backing of the Scottish Land Fund, and in this case we met with the group and extended the deadline for offers. However, Scottish Government ministers rejected the application so the community group was not in a position to purchase the building. The appeal period has now expired and the building is now under offer.”
The Church could have decided to sell directly to the community, but didn’t – which raises two big points.
The first is that the public expects better from the Kirk. The Community Empowerment Act means the onus is now on every local authority, health service or other public body to explain why the community shouldn’t have any asset it wants to take over. Shouldn’t the Church of Scotland adopt at least the same standards?
The second is that those rules about “late applications” must change or there will be next to no more successful community buyouts in urban Scotland.
According to Green MSP and land reform campaigner Andy Wightman, the relevant section of the 2003 Land Reform Act is deeply problematic. “I’ve gone round communities telling them to register an interest in any parcel of land or building that might conceivably be useful – just in case it suddenly comes on the market and they don’t have time to get organised,” he said. “But that’s a very tall ask – the level of detail needed is huge and if a community is interested in 12 buildings that means 12 separate applications.”
Of course some communities have managed it. Action Porty in Portobello recently completed the community buyout of Bellfield Church, but only because they had a full year’s notice of the Kirk’s intention to merge congregations and sell buildings. Even then, a direct offer to buy Bellfield was also rejected by the Church of Scotland – baffling when that would have ensured a fair market price. But Action Porty pressed on to register an interest, apply for financial support, fundraise and put a business plan together before the sale was announced, and it became Scotland’s first urban buyout in May of this year. Quite an achievement – but if the Church of Scotland had moved directly to a sale, as they did with London Road, the Action Porty folk would have been stymied too. Ironically, Bellfield was originally built by money raised locally (not by the Church), so the community have effectively had to pay for it twice.