How churches are contributing billions to the social good of our nation

07 Jun 2022

Nigel Walter Architect and academic specialising in heritage and community formation

Can you measure the value of mental health, wellbeing and food for the family on a spreadsheet? The National Churches Trust has done just that, and the figures are staggering

How do you put a price on wellbeing? In a world obsessed with balance sheets and metrics, the social goods that charities produce are easily overlooked. But as the Government struggles to provide social care amid a surging cost of living crisis, one of the oldest institutions in our country is (almost unnoticed) contributing billions to the national balance sheet. 

Most of us may not worship on a regular basis, if ever, but the National Churches Trust gives grants to help keep church buildings open and in use, recognising that these often surprising buildings retain an important role in a thriving local community. The Trust works across the UK and with all Christian denominations helping ensure church buildings remain at the centre of community life; in the wake of the pandemic Historic England tasked them with distributing £3.5m of Heritage Stimulus Fund cash to 32 communities. 

To which many of us may ask simply… why? The answer is in the social capital and benefits these hubs provide. And the figures are staggering.

Alongside grant giving, the Trust has a campaigning remit, and in 2020 conducted pioneering research with economic consultants State of Life to quantify the economic and social value of church buildings to local communities and to the nation. This was published in October 2020 in the House of Good report. Applying HM Treasury’s Green Book methodology, the research looked at two types of value – first, market value and replacement cost; second, non-market (wellbeing) value. 

The market value of church buildings was estimated in 2020 to be worth upwards of £2.4bn, but this isn’t about their value as real estate, rather what they provide.

Direct economic value came in at £1.4 billion per year – this includes the day-to-day work carried out in the buildings, clergy and staff employment costs, maintenance and utilities costs, and income from hiring, tourism and giving.

Next came the cost of replacement for their provision of social good: over £200 million per year. This is the cost to Government of replacing the social and community services provided in church buildings, such as counselling and mental health services, food banks, youth groups, and drug and alcohol support. These four key areas are important because of the number and scale of these activities in church buildings. 

Third we have the economic value of volunteers in and around churches: £850 million per year. This huge amount is the sum of many individual volunteer hours from the congregation and wider community in providing social and community good in church buildings. The average number of volunteer hours provided per church has doubled in the last decade, and now exceeds 2,500 per year.

It doesn’t end there. Next we have non-market or social value, which was estimated to be £10 billion per year.

The first in the gains here is the wellbeing value to the volunteers in church buildings: £165 million per year. This measures the health and wellbeing benefit of volunteering to those who do so. So a marvellous win-win, with volunteering benefiting both those giving and those receiving.

Next we have the wellbeing value to those who benefit from the social and community good made possible through church buildings: £8.3 billion per year. Food banks are the single most important church-related social and community good in terms of their contribution to the welfare of beneficiaries. Contrary to Ashfield MP Lee Anderson’s suggestion that there is ‘no massive use’ for food banks in the UK,  the report conservatively estimated their value at over £7 billion annually. The total of £8.3 billion equates to half the size of the UK care home sector.

Then we have the wellbeing value to people from attending services in church buildings: at least £1.4 billion per year. Regardless of religious affiliation, evidence from large national datasets shows that people who attend religious services feel happier and healthier than those who do not.

To put a price on the non-market value of the activities taking place in church buildings, The House of Good used a standard unit of measurement called a WELLBY – defined as a one-point change in life satisfaction on a 0-10 scale, per person, per year. The 2020 report used a very conservative rate to reach the headline figure of £12.4 billion of social value a year. Even so, that’s roughly equal to the total spent by the NHS on mental health in 2018.

In July 2021, HM Treasury adopted the WELLBY as its primary measure for wellbeing in its guidance, giving a mid-range monetary value of a WELLBY at £13,000. This official value is more than five times higher than the conservative figure used in the 2020 report. The research team therefore reran the calculations and issued a Report Update in late 2021, which puts the annual social value of church buildings in the UK at a staggering £55 billion. Unsurprisingly, the significant changes relate to the non-market (social) values, with the wellbeing value of volunteering now £2.3 billion, the value of weekly church attendance now £7.3 billion, and the wellbeing value to individuals benefiting from community good now £43 billion (with £36.3 billion from food banks).

These are colossal numbers. £55 billion is twice the annual spend by all local authorities on adult social care. Average that figure across the estimated 39,800 churches in the UK, and each church is contributing £1.4m. 

This research is a game changer for the specific sector in which the National Churches Trust operates, demonstrating the jaw-dropping scale of the financial contribution that church buildings make to society as a whole. For all of us concerned with positive social change, this offers a compelling means of representing the value of social goods, in turn providing a powerful argument for direct financial investment.

You can read more about the work at www.nationalchurchestrust.org/impact.

Dr Nigel Walter FRIBA FRSA is an architect and a trustee of the National Churches Trust

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Post expires on August 14th, 2022