SEVENTY years ago, in the wake of the Second World War, the Conservative government was elected on a manifesto plege to build 300,000 homes a year. Local authorities went on to build 3.1 million social homes in the following 25 years: 425,000 were built in 1968 alone.
Forty years ago, there were 5.5 million social homes. Today, there are just four million. In the intervening years, “public housing” — aimed at a broad spectrum of people and featuring municipally owned houses financed by public loans and subsidies — yielded to “social housing”. It was now for the residue of people unable to afford anything else; owned by a mix of housing associations and local authorities, and funded by public and private finance.
The figures are now starker than ever. The Government’s own definitions of those in priority need for housing show that about half a million households are homeless or living in unsatisfactory conditions. One in every 200 people is without a home. One child in nine is living in an overcrowded home.
The number of people sleeping rough is estimated to be up 165 per cent since 2010. The number of households in temporary accommodation — used by local authorities to fulfil their duty to homeless households with priority need — has grown 82 per cent in the past decade. A total of 83,700 households were living in temporary accommodation in June 2020. The figure included 127,890 children.
The bones of the housing crisis are laid bare in a comprehensive report from the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee in July 2020. This Select Committee investigated the long-term delivery of social housing, set out a blueprint for the future, and concluded: “There is compelling evidence that England needs at least 90,000 net additional social-rent homes a year for the next 15 years.”
In 2019, the total number of social-rent homes built was 6827. In a Green Paper in 2018, A New Deal for Social Housing, the Government acknowledged “a long-term need for social housing, especially in London and the South-east”, and affirmed that “social housing remains central to our [300,000 homes a year] ambition.” The Select Committee’s report revealed the total stock of social-rent housing to have increased by just 100,000 since 2010.
MANY factors have contributed to the current situation. The Housing Act 1980 furthered the declared ambition of the newly elected Conservative government that the country be “a property-owning democracy”. The Right to Buy allowed occupiers of social housing to buy their homes from the local authority, but there was no commitment to replacing the homes, or to local authorities’ ring-fencing the money to do so. The homelessness charity Crisis has calculated the replacement rate of the homes to be less than two in five.
But the Select Committee identified the significant rise in the value of land as an equally important factor in explaining the decline in social housing. Before the Land Compensation Act 1961, local authorities could compulsorily purchase land at its existing value. The new Act meant that landowners could be compensated for the amount that it might reach in future on the open market. The Royal Town Planning Institute estimated that lack of land was the factor in 90 per cent of cases where local authorities were not delivering social housing.
The charity Shelter, whose own commission on social housing concluded its work in 2019, has called for the provision of 3.1 million social homes over 20 years: an average of 155,000 a year. The Affordable Housing Commission (AHC) has recommended that the “step change” for the Government should be 90,000 a year, in line with the latest assessment of housing needs.
It warned that Covid-19 had exposed the broken housing system and its reliance on private renting to provide for lower-income households. Those in overcrowded homes had faced worse health outcomes, and private tenants had struggled to meet housing costs. It called for a social house-building programme to be top of the Government’s agenda to rebuild the country from the impact of Covid-19.
The Prime Minister vowed on 30 June last year that the Government’s “new deal” for Britain was “to unite and level up. To that end, we will build, build, build. Build back better, build back greener, build back faster and do that at the pace that this moment requires.”
In a series of study visits, members of the Archbishop’s Commission on Housing, Church and Community — which is to publish its full report on Sunday — have seen for themselves just what the definition “living in unsatisfactory conditions” means in 21st-century Britain.
Among them, the Rector of Stockport and Brinnington, the Revd Lynne Cullen, was a housing officer before ordination. Even she was shaken by the circumstances of a family in Newham, living on the second floor over a shop. Their flat, basically one room, was reached up a dark, steep, and narrow staircase, impeded by other tenants’ washing and storage.
The Commission found a young couple living there with a three-year-old child. They were basically in one room, the two beds jammed together, allowing almost no space to walk around. The husband told them about suspected rat infestation, problems with the electricity supply, concern about the windows, and the lack of heating.
“We all sat there on the bed, in that tiny room. It’s hard to describe how poignant it was,” she said. “While the husband was speaking, the wife silently passed me a folder. It was the documentation around the death of their baby, four months earlier. They were living with all of these issues. They felt unheard; they felt insecure in their tenancy. The repairs they reported had not been acted on.”
Another visit illustrated the plight of a single mother with three children under the age of nine, one of them a little boy with ADHD. Only one room of their three-bedroom flat was able fully to be used; so it contained a bunk bed for the children and a settee for the mother. The window had to be sealed, because it was considered unsafe for the little boy.
“It was August, stuffy and oppressive,” Mrs Cullen said. “She hadn’t been listened to. She had been on the waiting list for social housing for a long time, but demand had long outstripped supply. She was living under pressure all the time, with a great sense of isolation and disconnection from the community.”
One woman was found to have moved five times in six years, through insecure tenancies. A mother encountered in a high-rise had a four-year old with special needs, who had barely been out for a year. She suffered the complaints of neighbours that the child was noisy.
Mrs Cullen hopes that churches will feel called to connect, to “look through the lens of housing need at the assets of buildings and land with which God has blessed them. What I love about the Commission’s work is that we are putting our own house in order first. We are walking the talk, starting with what we can do to tackle the housing crisis together.”
THE report promises to be radical in its content and recommendations. Chris Beales, a social entrepreneur who has worked in this field for many years, commends the strong will to push for truly affordable social housing. A significant part of his own work on the Commission is working with Knight Frank and the research company Eido to develop a digital map of all Church of England land and buildings, using ARcGIS mapping technology.
“If we use the technology responsibly and creatively and strategically, then collectively we can make a big impact on the housing crisis,” he said. “If you take an area like Durham, for instance, you have a bit of diocesan land, a lot of Church Commissioners’ land, also some cathedral land. If you put that alongside local-authority or Homes England land, there is the potential to do something really significant.”
Pioneering work is already going on. In the south-west, for example, the dioceses of Gloucester, Salisbury, Bath & Wells, and Bristol, together with three dioceses in South Wales, have come together to open dialogue with the Western Gateway, a strategic partnership promoting and maximising economic growth in that area.
He finds encouragement, too, in a new, positive way of thinking from Homes England, which is responsible to the Government for increasing the number of homes to be built and for increasing the supply of land. Many housing associations are also wanting to see change.
“There is a real opportunity for the Church of England to take a leadership role. We have a presence in every community; we bring thousands of volunteers, hundreds of schools. and thousands of acres of land,” Mr Beales says.
“Churches during Covid-19 have had a real opportunity to exercise their ministry of love, and they are doing it brilliantly. People are realising that things have got to change, with the Church back in the public square.”