THE Prime Minister’s announcement that an extra £2 billion will be made available for social housing has been recognised as a sea-change within the Conservative leadership. Eight years ago, the former Chancellor, George Osborne, ceased to fund council housing from the money set aside to create so-called affordable housing. Nick Clegg, recalling his time in the Coalition Government, reported that his Conservative partners scorned social housing because “it just creates Labour voters.” Politicians will, of course, see everything in political terms. It is possible, then, that someone in the present leadership may well have pointed out that homelessness does not produce many Conservative voters, either. But let us give Theresa May the credit for setting party politics aside and simply acknowledging that it is unacceptable to have 1.2 million people on the waiting list for social housing, including 77,000 who are officially homeless. These are people for whom the market model, shaped by the concept of housing as an investment, does not work.
Despite the new money — an impressive amount, even if spread over several years — aspiration remains far removed from reality. When the Coalition Government took over in 2010, 39,402 social houses were started. Last year, the total was 1409. Officials reckon that the new funds might provide 5000 homes a year. But university researchers this summer estimated that 90,000 houses would need to be added to the social-housing stock each year until 2031 to deal with the shortfall. In such circumstances, it can sound idealistic to urge planners to divert funds for infrastructure; but it is important to recognise that, despite the prevailing fantasy, homes are completed by the people outside them rather than those inside. “Community” is a word over-used by those who believe that it can be somehow created or defined from outside. It is organic, a natural growth fed by a variety of influences and appearing in different guises. But each of these needs the right conditions to develop. The post-war history of estate-building provides many examples of the wrong conditions. Handing the task to private developers is unlikely to improve matters.
In this context, the programme of the Church’s Estates Evangelism Task Group speaks in welcome terms of the growth of “a loving, joyful church on every estate”. Whatever one thinks of the paternalistic efforts of the 19th-century church builders, a new strategy that, first and foremost, recognises the value of local connections and potential leadership — recognises, in fact, that the Holy Spirit is already at work — has a greater chance of success, especially if its definition of success is not pre-set.
Both efforts, of Church and State, could be ridiculed as too little, too late; and the task of alleviating the lot of the poorest and most easily ignored people in society does indeed demand more than the resources currently assigned to it. There is lost time to be made up. But assuming that these are more than mere gestures, this week’s announcements point to a healthier State and a healthier Church.