An english church

The UK Government’s Levelling Up agenda is intended to address the longstanding problem of regional economic disparities by investing in towns, cities, rural and coastal areas. For rural areas the emphasis is placed on strengthening the rural economy, developing rural infrastructure, delivering rural services, and managing the natural environment.

Central to levelling up is a concern with what are termed ‘anchor institutions’. These are defined as any organisation that has an important presence in a place. Anchor institutions are usually large-scale employers that are considered to make a major contribution to a local economy. Universities are premier anchor institutions. There are, however, many overlooked alternative anchor institutions that play a critical role in rural areas, and these include primary and secondary schools, bank branches, post offices, GP surgeries, chemists, pubs, village halls and churches. The closure of any place-based anchor institution represents erosion from below that negatively impacts on individual and community well-being.

The gap between what can be termed places ‘on the margins’, and agglomeration or urban economies continues to widen. This raises questions regarding the role communities can play in these more marginal locations in enhancing everyday living. The key here is that people living in smaller settlements and in rural areas must take the initiative with Government incentivising, supporting, enabling, and encouraging residents to develop innovative local place-building solutions intended to support alternative anchor institutions.

For centuries church buildings have played a central role in the life of rural communities. The National Churches Trust calculated in 2021 that the annual social and economic value of church buildings to the UK was worth around £55 billion. As anchor institutions, church buildings contribute to community well-being and local economies. This includes hosting food banks, post offices, and polling stations and providing space for community events.

Professor John Bryson - Birmingham Business School

For centuries church buildings have played a central role in the life of rural communities. The National Churches Trust calculated in 2021 that the annual social and economic value of church buildings to the UK was worth around £55 billion. As anchor institutions, church buildings contribute to community well-being and local economies. This includes hosting food banks, post offices, and polling stations and providing space for community events.

The on-going collapse in church attendance and subsequent closure of church buildings must be seen as a process involving the removal of critical local anchor institutions. The Church of England has around 16,000 churches - open to everyone - and is engaged in a process of managed retreat, trying to avoid closing church buildings.

An excellent example is St Mary Church, Bessingham, Norfolk. The Diocese of Norwich is piloting an innovative approach based on managed retreat. They have established the Diocesan Churches Trust which enables legal responsibility for church buildings used for occasional services to be transferred from a parish to this Trust. The church buildings remain open with six services held each year. The Trust provides insurance cover that would cover 25% of the rebuilding costs, but no interior cleaning and limited maintenance.

There is an alternative to the Bessingham process of managed retreat when representatives of a local community work together to envisage a new future for a church building. All Saints’ Church Waterden, Norfolk is an excellent example of this type of community engagement process. Located down a wide grass track in open fields, this tiny 11th century church was disused and sinking into decay. Nevertheless, a community group, the Friends of All Saints’ Waterden was established in 2017 to care for the church building and to maintain the churchyard with the church reopening in August 2019. Part of their mission was to raise funds for the maintenance of the church and to raise awareness. This group acquired the funds required for essential repairs including a new nave roof and ceiling, and repairs to brickwork with funding coming from the Heritage Lottery Fund, foundations, and trusts. The outcome is that people living in the area have been extremely active in ensuring that this church building can once again play an important role as a local anchor institution.

There needs to be a political debate on alternative place-based anchor institutions and the contributions they make to local well-being, community-building and economic development. It is important that every community identifies its critical alternative anchor institutions and develops solutions to enhance their resilience and the contributions they make to place-building.