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Does social housing pay, commission asks

08 November 2019


AN EXPLORATION of whether the Church can invest in social housing while securing good returns is part of the work of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Housing Commission, its chairman, Charlie Arbuthnot, said this week.

Speaking after appearing at the Bristol Housing Festival last week, Mr Arbuthnot, said that, while the Commission would explore government policy, it was “absolutely crucial that we look at ourselves” (News, 10 April 2019).

A self-employed financial adviser to housing associations, he had previously worked to persuade big institutional investors to put money into social-housing bonds, learning that the most effective approach was “not to appeal to their better nature but to their financial nature — to show that, if we structure them well, these are incredibly safe investments.” Social housing was the only sector that had not had massive crisis in the past 30 years, he said.

“The challenge there for diocesan funds and the Church Commissioners is ‘Can we marry the requirement to deliver an excellent return with a desire to do this in an incredibly godly way, or is there an inherent conflict?’” While he “wholly understood” those who asked why the Church did not simply give all its money away, it was “not that simple”:a balance must be struck between stewardship and giving. There was a “great rapport” between the Commissioners and the Commission, he said.

He was also aware that, when it came to government, while there was a desire to present things that were “well-argued and coherent”, “if we say anything worth while, someone will be upset.”

Already, local churches were doing “amazing” work on housing, that could be replicated, and he was “very, very confident that there is going to be change on the ground”. But there was also a need to challenge the idea that the Church should stay out of politics, to ask why it was not more present at local planning meetings, and to challenge “Nimbyism” within the Church (News, 11 May 2018).

The “key stream” was theological, he said. “We need as a Church to have a distinctly Christian biblical voice into this crisis”.

The theological work of the Commission is being led by the Bishop of Kensington, Dr Graham Tomlin, who spoke in Bristol about housing as a “universal human need — something that matters to God and matters to his Church”. Homes should be places that enabled people to “grow, develop, and mature”, but they must first offer security, stability, privacy, and the possibility of hospitality.

The event was convened on the same day as the launch of the report of the inquiry into the the Grenfell Tower fire — an event that had revealed, Dr Tomlin suggested, that social housing had not been a national priority: “What remains of social-housing stock is often of poor quality, oversight is not clear, and tenants very often feel they don’t have much of a voice.” Commissioners who had visited North Kensington had been “shocked”, he said.

Commissioners who had visited North Kensington had been “shocked”, he said.

But despite the existence of many other reports on housing, he was confident that the Commission’s work would make a difference: “Right from the very beginning, the Commission was determined not to be another talking shop.” Rather than having lots of conversations among themselves and coming up with an “unrealistic” report, it was pursuing a conversation with the Church Commissioners, housing developers and the Government.

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