Housing is about more than prices

by
09 March 2018

Its goal should be the building of healthy and thriving communities, says Justin Welby

istock

GROSS inequalities of housing value and thus of wealth within a community result in community disintegration. Those with property understandably want to protect the value of what they own, or better still see it rise. They are likely to resist encroachment by social housing, or even by necessary urban infrastructure, including bus routes, low-cost shopping, and more major developments that have to go somewhere, such as prisons, hospitals, and state schools.

The NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) factor makes local forms of community government at parish level resistant to outsiders and reluctant to sponsor diversity if there is any possibility that it will diminish housing values or be perceived as a risk to the aesthetic of the community.

Yet a community that is too expensive and exclusive becomes like a hedonistic version of ancient Sparta: only the elite live in it, and it is surrounded by suburbs of what are effectively helots — serfs — whose job is to be there during the day, and be away or invisible at other times. There is no diversity, no mixing, no valuing of difference, no sight of the poor; in all, a failure of genuine and caring community.

The values and practices increasingly implied by the balance of property values and influence of location are those of materialistic economic maximisation with no account of justice or equality. These are justified by saying that it is the work of the market, not recognising that markets that do not serve the common good are dysfunctional, and, like the UK property market in the early 1990s and after 2008, end up consuming themselves and those who are over-extended in slavery to their demands.

 

YET what can be done about it? HA [Housing Association] estates and properties are to some extent discrete entities with a capacity to make policy, although it is essential that policies are owned and designed by the communities which are being created. Private property has a right and long tradition of being protected by law from undue interference. Local government is able to engage with communities and is democratically accountable for their decisions; they should be the ones with responsibility for the management of social value and the creation of community.

As private property is part of a market, then to some extent fiscal and planning guides must seek to establish clear principles for the just and transparent operating of the market. There can be supplementary taxes on properties left empty for large proportions of the year. Capital Gains Tax should continue to apply to all properties where the beneficial owner is overseas, as vacant properties weaken community. There is an argument for attaching the same tax to all properties, perhaps on a tapering basis for very long- term ownership.

The idea of a location tax, or wealth tax on the underlying value of property, needs re-examining, although it is clear that the problems of its implementation are huge, and possibly the damage to personal liberty would be greater than the gain in societal equality.

Most of all, all legislation, and all permission or encouragements relevant to housing, and to new building, must include a strong element of community-enhancing aspects. It is critical that large numbers of new houses are built where they are needed, but building by itself is only a means to an end, the end being communities that are healthy in every way. With all the necessary relaxation of planning limits and opening of opportunities for development must come clear pre-conditions based on values and practices that will imagine health in every form from individual to environmental as the principal characteristic of new development.

No new estate should be built above a certain small size without the developer having to create areas for meeting, halls, space for shops and exercise, schools, clinics, centres of counselling and support, places of worship and other community facilities to ensure a clear community focus. There must continue to be a significant proportion of genuinely low- cost housing on all developments, especially in large urban centres like London and other major cities, so that there is genuine social diversity and mobility of population, and thus the mixing of different groups in ways that enable the formation of relationships and communities.

The issues of climate change and the environment must be faced, and the forms of energy generation and waste disposal future-proofed. Local community transformation boards could be tasked with overseeing these issues to ensure that responsibility is taken collectively. They would also ensure that private developers, public sector providers, and voluntary groups are all lined up to facilitate its success, as well as large-scale landowners, including the Church of England.

 

THE re-empowering of local government at its lowest level, capable of raising and spending money for local benefit and attentive to the details but not exclusive in its policies, is a cornerstone of community development with relationships that are based on equality and justice, not merely on the value of a plot of land.

The need is for a top-to-bottom reimagining of almost every aspect of housing development in this country with a view to recapturing, through thriving communities, the vision of a new Britain, more equal, more healthy, and with greater opportunity.

 

The Most Revd Justin Welby is the Archbishop of Canterbury.

This is an edited extract from Reimagining Britain: Foundations for hope, by Justin Welby, published by Bloomsbury at £16.99 (Church Times Bookshop £12.99).

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