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Faith, Place and Planning: the need for planners and faith groups to engage with and understand each other

11 November 2015

By guest blogger Neil Harris, Cardiff University

I paced the streets of Cardiff during my days as a town planning student, working my way from halls of residence to university through the densely-packed, terraced streets of the city's Victorian and Edwardian neighbourhoods. One of the striking things about the built environment of these neighbourhoods was the frequency of church and chapel buildings.

Christian worship clearly played an important part in the lives of the residents of these places at the time that they were planned and built. Yet, as a student I would pass these buildings as redundant, underused and decaying. One was now a discount store, another was a centre for a Judo club, and another was let out for anyone to hire by the hour. The less fortunate buildings were vacant, in a poor condition, and awaiting some developer to come and knock them down to be replaced by student flats.

The changes in society and its religious or faith practices over the twentieth century were everywhere written into the built environment. Today, some of the buildings have survived as arts centres and coffee shops where bibles are replaced by baristas.

The most recent Census in 2011 shows some of the trends contributing to the above phenomenon continuing. It showed that the number of people in England and Wales stating no religious affiliation had increased by over 80% to above 14 million people during the previous decade. Over the decade to 2011, the number of people identifying themselves as Christian declined by 11%. We are, it seems, becoming an increasingly secular society.

Yet the Faith and Place Network, developed to address the issues at the interface between faith, place and planning, has carried out research showing a rather more complex pattern of faith and religious practices, with important implications for the built environment and also for planners. In the UK, at the same time as there has been a decline in some religions, there has also been a tremendous growth in others. The Census in 2011 showed considerable growth in the number of Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims in England and Wales, as well as in other religions. The fall of nearly 4 million people identifying themselves as Christian in the 2011 Census also conceals growth in some ethnic groups within the Christian population. The spatial pattern of these growing religions in England and Wales is also significant, with concentrations in larger urban areas.

Many British cities are no longer characterised by a pattern of redundant places of worship. Instead, faith groups are now finding it challenging to provide suitable spaces for worship, either because of a lack of existing premises or challenges in engaging with the planning system.

The National Planning Policy Framework in England identifies the need to plan positively for places of worship, and also the importance of facilities designed to support communities' day-to-day needs. Yet planners can do more than this. At the launch of the Faith and Place Network's policy briefing on 'Faith Groups and the Planning System', one speaker argued passionately about what faith groups can bring to a community - a strong, connected network of people; support and care for those groups that need it; community facilities that support a wide range of events and activities; and life and activity in parts of our towns and cities that require regeneration. In other words, planners can engage with faith groups to help deliver more sustainable communities.

Planners need to engage with faith groups, and faith groups need to engage with the planning system. And this is where the Faith and Place Network's recent policy briefing can help. It identifies a range of actions around a series of themes - the most significant being the need for faith groups and planners to better understand one another. We, as planners, need to improve our understanding of how faith groups use space, and faith groups need to learn their way through the planning system.

Reverend Katei Kirby of Ruach City Church argued at the launch of the Network's policy briefing that she now needed to be as familiar with section 106 of planning legislation as Psalm 106 of the Bible in her church's quest to provide suitable faith spaces through the planning system. For planners unfamiliar with Psalm 106, it fittingly states 'Blessed are they that keep judgement, and he that doeth righteousness at all times'.

The network's policy briefing does not imply that addressing faith spaces and the planning system will be easy, yet it does start with the essential task of making efforts to understand one another in a changing society.


Neil Harris is an academic at Cardiff University and a Chartered Town Planner.

The Faith and Place Network was managed by Andrew Rogers at Roehampton University and Richard Gale at Cardiff University. Information on the Network and its policy briefing on 'Faith Groups and the Planning System' can be found at