Tuesday, February 06, 2024

Church of England attempt to cut clergy retirement housing stock slammed

Sheldon Hub Resource - CEECA - part of the Faithworkers' Branch of Unite  the Union

Church of England leaders have been criticised by Unite for attempting to cut retirement housing provision for clergy, many of whom spend their working lives living in church-owned properties and cannot afford mortgages.

Unite, which represents over 2,000 clergy and lay officers, said the church had created a ‘needless’ funding crisis in its provision of clergy retirement housing stock.

Until 2010, retirement housing was paid for through loans to the Church of England’s pension board from the Church Commissioners, the body that administers the church's national endowment, currently valued at over £10bn.

Since then, however, the pension board has been forced to take out loans from commercial lenders to buy housing.

Due to the change, 75 per cent of the income from retirement rents now goes to servicing debts. Church of England pension board chair Clive Mather has said the costs of providing housing have soared due to rising inflation and interest rates. A consultation on retirement housing by the pension board has declared the situation ‘unsustainable’.

As a result, proposals to water down housing provision to retiring clergy have been put forward. These include offering advice about retirement planning, relocation to less expensive parts of the country and working with mortgage lenders to enable more home ownership options.

Last November, First Church Estates Commissioner, Alan Smith, was questioned over whether it would be ‘more ethical and profitable’ for retirement properties to ‘become part of the investment policy of the Church of England Commissioners?’

Mr Smith responded by saying such investment ‘needs to be considered in the context of our investment strategy and taking into account our return target (CPIH+4 per cent), risk profile and a range of other portfolio metrics, including overall existing fund composition’.

Unite regional coordinating officer Sarah Cook said: “The Church Commissioners created this needless crisis in retirement housing – it is their responsibility to fix it. It is frankly astounding that the commissioner's response to a call to invest directly in housing, which is a far cheaper and sustainable option, was that the return-on-investment target had to be considered.

“The church has billions in the bank. But the current position of the Church Commissioners seems to put accruing even more money over ensuring clergy have somewhere to live when they retire. Unite will be fighting these attempts to reduce Church of England retirement housing all the way.”  

Last week, Church of England Employee and Clergy Advocates, part of the Faith Workers Branch of Unite, along with the Retired Clergy Association of the Church of England, submitted a joint response to proposals.

The joint response said the proposals “represent a radical break in the covenant of care between the Church of England and its clergy as to how they will be supported in retirement... (They bring) fresh uncertainty and anxiety to those clergy who have no other viable means of securing housing in retirement, and fuelling the broader perception among clergy that their ministry is no longer understood or valued by the institutional Church”.

A priest in the Diocese of Durham said: “I will have to move out of my provided accommodation within three months when I retire. I can’t afford a mortgage deposit, or a mortgage and I am extremely worried that my full state pension and church pension will not be enough to afford to rent anywhere in the current rental crisis and still manage to pay bills and living expenses.”