London needs more houses. Anyone who’s spent an hour talking to a Londoner cannot be unaware that this is a top priority. Anyone who followed last year’s mayoral election will have heard promises of new buildings, affordable flats, lower rent prices and other utopian promises. But what happens when it’s decided that these houses should be packed onto the site of current estates? What happens to a community when its few hundred houses are destined to be replaced by several thousand?
I currently work for a church in West London where a third of our parish is facing this situation. Two estates that have been homes to a few thousand people for the past 60 years are due to be demolished and replaced with 11,000 new flats. This decision was made behind closed doors without the resident’s knowledge and only became public when it was a done deal. Years later and the plans are still rolling on, accompanied now by cranes and concrete mixers, while the residents have a campaign to stop them.
I have at times felt on both ‘sides’ of this situation. On the one hand I sympathise with the residents; disempowered and ignored whilst rich developers make obscene amounts of money at their expense. Joining their campaign can feel like following Robin Hood into a fight with the far better resourced Sheriff of Nottingham who comes accompanied by many well-heeled lawyers. On other days when I see the effects of our housing crisis I can see that the local politicians have been chosen by us to make the difficult decisions about town planning and how to arrange our country’s resources, including our land, and whatever decisions they make will inevitably upset someone. As I meet with the developers they talk about their commitment to providing more housing so that everyone can have a home and not be left in substandard and neglected accommodation.
Locally these two opposing positions have meant that neighbours refuse to speak to each other as they pick a side. Some try to ignore what is happening hoping that somehow it will all go away. Others sit worrying about where they might be raising their children in a few years’ time and whether they will still call London ‘home’. Others call it gentrification; destroying a rich culture of diversity to be replaced with cookie cutter high streets and flats which appeal to the middle classes.
And into all of this God calls the church to be involved. Day by day these estates are what many people call home. Their lives continue as they go to work, send their children to school and meet their neighbours. The mission of the church to see these communities flourish by the power of God translates to youth clubs, Christmas parties and English language classes. In some ways this is a similar story to many churches up and down the land. But these communities face a particular challenge: a threat to their very existence. If the development goes ahead they may end up living on the same space but nothing will be recognisable, the culture would be irreversibly changed as the buildings around them transform and thousands of others arrive. If the development is halted and the estates remain what effect would a long fight have on the community? What does mission look like in either of these scenarios? How would God call us to pray? Where should we direct our resources? How do we write a mission strategy when it is uncertain whether parts of the estates will still be standing in a year’s time?
Ultimately what kind of communities are we building and how should the church be involved in that conversation?
There are two different directions in which these questions could take us. One direction is around planning decisions and advocating for equality within the housing sector. What percentage of affordable houses should sit alongside luxury penthouses? How do we mix up different types of people to prevent ‘sink estates’? What do we do about our homelessness whilst precious flats are sold to foreign investors who may visit only once a year (if at all)? A lot of vital work is being done by churches and other faith groups thinking about these issues and advocating for a better way forward to all. To learn more about this get to know Citizens UK and Housing Justice.
But for me, day by day as I walk around my local area, another answer to the question of ‘what kind of communities are we building?’ and ‘how should the church be involved?’ is beginning to take shape. The more time I have spent getting to know the challenges around this situation the more I have found myself reflecting on the ministry of reconciliation that Christians are called to. As neighbours fall out over developers plans there comes a need for each to be reconciled to each other. As developers plough on ahead without input from the residents there is a need for dialogue to begin. Reconciliation opens the door to relationships and forms the backbone of a flourishing community. Reconciliation with Christ is at the heart of a flourishing life and holds everything together.
Reconciliation isn’t easy but then of course good things rarely are. For me it has meant acknowledging the different positions outlined above but choosing not to take a side. Officially as a local church we are neutral and will work with any who wish to serve the people around them. With both developers and anti-development campaigners beginning community projects I sit in meetings with each where the other is routinely criticised. Sometimes I have tried to bring people together but this has rarely gone well and has shown that nothing happens quickly or easily. It can also on occasion, lead to increased animosity. Yet when it happens that we do see diverse groups meeting and learning together or partnerships are formed that bring benefit to both organisations, you can see tiny nuggets of reconciliation gold.
I don’t know what my area will look like in the next five, ten or fifteen years. I don’t know what kind of people will be living here and how neighbourly it will feel. I don’t know what missional endeavours will have been undertaken. But I hope and pray that it will be a place where reconciliation has led to a flourishing community and I hope that at the centre of it will be a church community that continues to seek the good of all regardless of which side they began on.
Earls’ Court community worker