‘God’s acres’: the land owned by the Church Commissioners

This post is by Guy Shrubsole. Image: Exterior of 1 Millbank, erstwhile headquarters of the Church Commissioners.

Who Owns England can reveal, for the first time, a map of the land owned by the secretive and powerful Church Commissioners, the Church of England’s main property arm.

The Church Commissioners – who own a 105,000-acre land and property portfolio worth some £2billion – are notoriously tight-lipped about their landholdings. No breakdown of their broad acres can be found in their annual reports, nor is there any published map, despite the Church Commissioners announcing they had digitised maps of their landed assets in 2013. The organisation is also exempt from Freedom of Information law, making scrutiny harder. In correspondence passed to me, a property manager for the Church Commissioners states simply: “We do not give out plans of the Commissioners’ land.”

But an exhaustive investigation has found a workaround, enabling a map to be pieced together revealing two-thirds of the Church Commissioners’ vast estate, and inferring where the majority of the remaining one-third lies.

Mapping what the Church Commissioners own 

Any landowner that wishes to protect their estate from future rights of way claims can do so by paying the local council a small fee and lodging with them a map of their landholdings. This obscure rule, section 31.6 of the Highways Act 1980, means that hundreds of landowners’ estate maps lie buried on the back pages of council websites. And the Church Commissioners, it turns out, appear to have registered almost all of their estates in this way.

Scouring council webpages for these maps – and then turning them into digital maps using INSPIRE Index Polygons and free desktop mapping software (QGIS) – has been a lengthy task. Knowing that the well-resourced Church Commissioners already have a secret digitised map of all their landholdings made the process still more frustrating. But here, at last, are the results. All the estates I’ve been able to map are shown here in yellow:

Contains INSPIRE Index Polygons. © Crown copyright and database rights 2019 Ordnance Survey 100026316. There are restrictions on republication of INSPIRE polygons; I am publishing them here for purposes of news reporting under fair dealing. I will take them down if requested by OS.

Calculating the acreage of each estate was done by measuring the area of the polygons:

Estates of the Church Commissioners
County Area Notes
Cambridgeshire 9,337 acres Huntingdon Estate & Ely Estate
Cumbria 6,894 acres Carlisle Estate (5,808 acres) & Newbiggin Estate (1,086 acres)
Oxfordshire 6,648 acres Islip Estate (1,234 acres), Bishopstone Estate (3,104 acres) & Kelmscott Estate (2,310 acres)
Devon 6,458 acres
Kent 5,984 acres Canterbury Estate (4,433 acres) & Ashford Estate (1,551 acres)
West Sussex 5,945 acres Chichester Estate
Lancashire 5,791 acres Halsall Estate
North Yorkshire 3,963 acres York Estate
Lincolnshire 3,555 acres South Lincoln Estate
Derbyshire 3,127 acres Foremark Estate
Staffordshire 2,722 acres Eccleshall Estate
Essex 2,530 acres Kelvedon Hatch Estate
Somerset 1,946 acres
North Lincolnshire 1,636 acres
Herefordshire 1,017 acres Hereford Estate
Central Bedfordshire 511 acres
Worcestershire 358 acres
Land mapped 68,422 acres  
Total land owned by Church Commissioners 105,000 acres Source.
‘Missing’ land 36,578 acres  

The Ashford Estate is registered in the name of Cedarvale, a subsidiary company wholly controlled by the Church Commissioners. As their 2013 annual report states, “At over 1,500 acres and situated to the south of Ashford town centre, the Estate was acquired for its long-term residential development prospects in the late 1980s.” Much of it is a building site, as the Commissioners sell it off for housing.

In addition, the Church Commissioners own a number of very valuable properties in London – including the 90-acre Hyde Park Estate near Paddington; Paternoster Square in the City (on a long lease to the London Stock Exchange); the London Lancaster Hotel on Bayswater Road; a row of high-rent shops in Covent Garden; and the Church of England’s political headquarters, the Millbank Estate – including Church House, and Lambeth Palace (residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury). The screengrab map below was generated using the digital mapping tool Orbital Witness.

Church Comms London

The data

Here’s a Google Drive folder containing all the Church Commissioners’ Highways Act s31.6 landowner deposit maps I could find on council websites. They’re nearly all PDFs – a few councils have digitised their s31 deposits, so these are just included in the Google Map above as KML files. The folder contains maps of a number of much smaller estates that I’ve not tried to re-build using INSPIRE Polygons, so aren’t included in the table above (the Church’s estates in Warwickshire, Hampshire, Northamptonshire, Bedford, South Tyneside, Medway, Nottinghamshire, North Somerset and Norfolk). I’d estimate that these scattered fields and properties don’t amount to more than a couple of thousand acres at most.

Another source of data on what the Church Commissioners own is the Land Registry’s Corporate and Commercial (‘C&C’) dataset, first released in November 2017. Here’s an extract of the 12,500 land titles it contains registered to the Church Commissioners (including mineral rights, discussed later). Whilst very useful for identifying buildings, the C&C dataset is pretty useless for mapping large tracts of farmland or moorland, as the only geolocation data it provides is where the land title has an associated postcode. Still, a point map of all the postcodes registered to the Church Commissioners is a good way of corroborating what the Highways Act maps show – and highlighting where there’s missing land:

Church Commissioners screengrab map

Missing acres

So, having mapped two-thirds of what the Church Commissioners own, where’s the missing one-third?

From the Land Registry point data mapped above, it looks like a lot of it is in County Durham. I checked Durham Council’s Highways Act deposits for the Church Commissioners – they have 3 estate maps deposited for Durham (included in the Google Drive folder linked to earlier). But these appear to only show a fraction of what the Church owns in Durham. If I’m right in my hunch, they own vast swathes of land here – maybe as much as 30,000 acres.

One way I’ve tried to evidence this is through using the online mapping tools Orbital Witness and LandInsight. Both are relatively new startups that have been built off licensing agreements with Land Registry, allowing them to display (behind paywalls) land titles registered in the LR’s Corporate & Commercial dataset, but actually linked to polygon maps of the land parcels in question, not just postcode point locations. Unfortunately, the sheer number of land titles owned by the Church Commissioners in County Durham makes it difficult to view them all on the Orbital Witness interface; and the pay-per-land parcel model that LandInsight has makes it prohibitively expensive to view them all this way, either. Still, this is where I got to with tracking down Church Commissioner land in Co Durham using LandInsight – you can see how they appear to own a huge amount of farmland to the east of the Pennines:

Church Comms County Durham LandInsight

One last way of inferring the land the Commissioners may own in County Durham is by turning to a historical source. This doctoral thesis on 19th century land ownership in the Pennines, by Olivia Wilson at Durham University, contains a map of the area’s landowners in 1850 – reproduced below:

Bishop of Durham's land 1850

You can see that the Bishop of Durham owned a great swathe of the Pennines in the mid-19th century; could it be that this land has since been passed to the Church Commissioners? I decided to georeference the above map (which means assigning it real-world coordinates, so that it can be matched up to other digital mapping data). It turns out to be remarkably accurate – the current boundaries of the Raby Estate, owned by Lord Barnard, map precisely onto the 1850 map’s boundaries. Overlaying it with the Corporate & Commercial point data for Church Commissioner land shows the Church still owns at least some of what the Bishop of Durham owned 170 years ago:

Georeferenced 3 - points

Raby Estates shown in purple and pink; Church Commissioner land titles shown as green points.

A final clue comes from the fact that the 1873 Return of Owners of Land lists the Ecclesiastical Commissioners (the forerunners of the Church Commissioners) as owning 26,868 acres in County Durham.

Mineral rights and forestry land owned outside England

The Church Commissioners also lay claim to around 585,000 acres of mineral rights. Technically, this gives them the right to cash in on stone, metals and minerals beneath the earth, even where they don’t own the freehold to the land above – though obtaining access to dig quarries and mines would require them to compensate the freehold owners. Many of the Church’s mineral rights claims appear to be listed in the C&C data linked to earlier.

The Church Commissioners also have an international forestry portfolio. Their 2018 annual report states: “The Commissioners’ forestry estate covers 103,000 acres in the UK, the US and Australia.” Within the UK, its forestry land appears to be all in Wales and Scotland; the Church’s English estates are all dominated by open farmland. Lo and behold, its 2014 annual report reveals that that year it “bought 17,000 acres of forestry spread across 15 forests in Scotland and Wales. This makes the Commissioners the largest private sector forestry owner in the UK, providing roughly 5% of the UK’s domestic wood supply.”

Responsible investments?

The Church Commissioners’ main reason for owning so much land is because they’re essentially the pension fund of the Anglican clergy. Decisions about what to invest in are driven largely by hard-nosed financial calculation and fiduciary duty.

Yet in recent years, the Church has also rightly come under pressure to invest in socially and environmentally responsible ways. The Commissioners agreed to divest from stocks and shares in coal and tar sands in 2015, and more recently to divest from oil and gas firms too. But do such climate change considerations extend to the way the Church Commissioners manage their extensive land holdings?

Growing trees on the Church’s 105,000 acres, for instance, could lock up a lot of carbon and provide valuable space for wildlife. But the only forests the Church Commissioners seem to own are in Wales and Scotland, not England, and these are commercially-managed conifer plantations managed for forestry, rather than species-rich native woodlands left to grow old. A quick comparison of the Commissioners’ estates with agricultural land grade maps suggests some of the farmland they own is clearly top-quality and best kept for food growing – such as the Grade 1 land they possess in the Cambridgeshire Fens. But even here, there’s a need to urgently consider how to stop the carbon-rich peat soils of the Fens from degrading further, leaking the carbon they store into the atmosphere. And on the Church Commissioners’ more remote, marginal farms – particularly the vast swathes of poor-quality land it owns in County Durham – there is surely space for more trees and woods, even if simply as shelter-belts for livestock.

The Church has declared its responsibility to “safeguard God’s creation”: it should make a start by practising better stewardship of the vast acreages of land it owns.

6 thoughts on “‘God’s acres’: the land owned by the Church Commissioners

  1. More excellent work. I surmise these estates are the endowment lands and properties owned by the Church. Could some of the missing acres be churchyards and glebe land? Is this land owned by the Church Commissioners? With some 13000 churches in its ownership and many of them with substantial graveyards surrounding them, the amount of land is going to be significant.

    My own slant on this arises from my interest in Grade 1 listed buildings, of which the Church of England has some 5,000.

    1. Hi William, thanks! My understanding is that most churches, churchyards and remaining glebe land is owned by the 42 Dioceses, rather than by the Church Commissioners. The Dioceses own around 75,000 acres, in addition to the Commissioners’ 105,000 acres. But there could well be overlap / exchange in places – the Ecclesiastical Commissioners certainly took on a lot of the land previously owned by the Bishop/ Diocese of Durham, for instance.

    1. That is a serious allegation and if true should be investigated. Most glebe land I know of outside the purview of the Dioceses is invested in Parochial Church Councils not Clergy, and they are very protective of it. In my last parish there was some ex glebe land next to the vicarage and it had been sold off to provide social housing- to the irritation of some of the affluent near neighbours.

  2. I suggest the area owned in Co. Durham won’t have much livestock, unless you include ‘game’ birds as livestock. Much is let out to sheep farmers, so church commissioners will gain the 2/3 EC subsidy at least. And they retain the mineral rights?? Worth a pretty penny. I live near the borders between Durham, Cumbria & Northumberland. Just lent my vicar the Land Reform booklet from 1908(?) mentioned in Who Owns England. He is also vicar for the estate church of the Blackett-Ords, and our local worthy is Blackett-Beaumont. Light blue touch paper and retire.

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