Selling church land to pay for new developments  

Everyone with a church that needs repairs would like to land funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, a grant from the National Churches Trust, or maybe receive a generous legacy. But sometimes, when large sums are needed for a church project, it can pay to think outside the box. One idea, which can be controversial, is selling church land for development. Hilaire Gomer, journalist and volunteer, investigates.


Raising large sums for two churches in Surbiton, Surrey

The parishioners of two major Anglican churches, St Andrew’s and St Mark’s in Surbiton,  have been discussing how to raise funds and improve facilities for at least 20 years.

Peter Stokes was parish treasurer for 10 years to 2013.  He explains, “A study of the needs of the local community was undertaken in 2003, as a result of which it became obvious that if we were to achieve our aim of serving God by serving the community, we needed to improve our buildings”.

But how to find the money? The Victorian parish church of St Mark’s, its steeple on the top of Surbiton Hill a local landmark, had an old church hall which could be pulled down and the land sold. It also had a reasonably-sized graveyard with space for a new church hall and a new vicarage.

StM external.jpg

St Mark’s church decided to sell land to a developer to build flats – see left 

Developer Shanly Homes offered the best price of £3m for the land. It wished to build 20 luxury flats with balconies and underground parking on the site. These flats came to the market with a price tag of £200,000 – £500,000.

At the bottom of Surbiton Hill sits St Andrew’s church. Its old church hall site was redeveloped with affordable housing and a new Scout HQ.

Changes to help the two churches to work  better with the community

In all, the parish spent £5m on improvements for the two churches so that they could provide more for parishioners and local people. For this it gained a new hall attached to the side of St Mark’s church. The old 1950s vicarage (which was in the way of the Shanly build), was pulled down and a new vicarage built on the graveyard.

St Andrew’s saw the creation of two new community rooms, one strikingly made of glass and steel. The rooms are used for meetings and available for hire and also provide pre-and after-school child care.

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A new meeting room for St Andrew’s, Surbiton

The money also financed the refurbishment of both churches. St Andrew’s, a grade II- listed red brick edifice with a tower built in 1874, has a fine organ and is known for its musical events.

During 2008 and 2009 St Andrew’s interior was cleaned, revealing striped stone work on its pillars. It was given new staging (the old version collapsed during a concert). It was also given a new magnificent Italian marble floor.

Picture 017.jpgSt Andrew’s, Surbiton, benefited from refurbishment and an Italian marble floor

According to Peter Stokes the project went relatively smoothly, with Kingston Council being supportive. He said, “From planning to rededication it took about seven years to carry out the works, finishing in 2012.”

A good development – but maybe not so affordable?

Many parishioners felt that if you had to have development to refurbish and improve the churches, then the Shanly development was acceptable.

There was some dissent about why the churches didn’t think in terms of more affordable housing, rather than the luxury flats that were built. The answer from the project team was that without the Shanly offer the viability of the whole project would have been in doubt.

On the whole parishioners accepted that it was OK that “holy ground” was being developed, but the land that Shanly used was not in fact part of the graveyard. St Mark’s new church hall and its new vicarage still has the churchyard surrounding them.

The remains of about 100 parishioners from St Mark’s churchyard dating from 1845, whose grave stones had gone, were moved. They were re-interred in Surbiton Cemetery with a new memorial.


Shoreditch Baptist church

Another similar scheme took place in Shoreditch, east London. Shoreditch Tabernacle Baptist Church wanted a new building, and the local specialist Mildmay Hospital needed upgrading.

So both organisations pooled their land and were able, in this crowded, fashionable part of east London, to work out a big, imaginative scheme. It involved a new church, a revamped hospital, affordable housing and much more. Planning began in 2007 followed by a construction period of 2014-2017.

The bill came to £40m. This was partially financed by the building of 139 flats: 31 were social renting, 14 were shared ownership, 69 were privately rented via housing association Genesis Housing Group, and a quarter were sold on the open market.

The development made a genuine beneficial difference to the area. Before there were dark unfriendly alley ways, now anyone can walk through –  a light, attractive public space.

The development is deemed a success because many different needs from different organisations and parts of the community were satisfied, and it provided much needed affordable homes.

Deciding to sell church land is sensitive

Catherine Townsend, Grants Manager for the National Churches Trust comments, “The future for church funding is quite concerning. With the Heritage Lottery Fund reducing the funds it has available for Places of Worship, churches need to consider alternative ways to raising funds.

“We have seen a few churches approaching us for grants who have chosen to sell under used buildings or land, but this won’t be a suitable solution for every church. Church buildings are often entwined with emotion and sentiment, and there will always be a balance of opinion and benefits if a church does decide to dispose of assets.”

Clergy, church goers and church lovers want churches to thrive and most accept that some development of church land, if sensitively done, may be needed. Selling a little-used ancillary building is an attractive option for churches.

Given that parishes want facilities such as lavatories, meeting rooms, underfloor heating and a general upgrade of their old and not-so-old church buildings, developing church land, especially in the centre of cities, is already happening, and it is likely to be an increasingly popular option.

Of course, anything to do with disturbing graves and selling chunks of the actual graveyard can be sensitive. Not surprisingly there is also concern if a church does not consider providing affordable housing in a development.

What do you think about churches raising funds from non-traditional sources? Do you think there are controversial issues to be debated? Please let us know by commenting on this blog or by emailing us at

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