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Leader comment: Housing: a disappointing response

26 February 2021

IT WAS Sunday, admittedly. Our story on the report of the Archbishops’ Housing Commission had appeared online at 6 a.m. At 12.30 p.m., we heard from the press office of the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), grateful if we would “update” our copy “to reflect the Government’s position”. Remember, this is a church report that shows that 1.2 million households pay more than 40 per cent of their net income on rent, and that 4.8 million households struggle to afford their accommodation; that recommends a redefinition of “affordability” along the lines proposed by the Affordable Housing Commission, i.e. relating to income and not surrounding house prices; and, most importantly, that calls on the Government to join with other political parties to formulate a 20-year agreed strategy to tackle the housing crisis.

In response, there was a one-sentence reaction from the MHCLG: “We welcome and encourage the practical steps that the Church is taking to make more of their land available for affordable housing.” That was it. The rest of the email was a set of bullet-points detailing how active the Government has been in addressing the issue of housing. These were all very impressive ­— as have been the actions of almost every government in the past 40 years. The point that the Archbishops’ Commission makes in its report is simple enough to grasp, however: none of the existing measures is working.

This “Don’t bother us about this now” attitude is perfectly understandable from a Government with its hands full of other crises: health, the economy, employment, education, not to mention the Brexit fallout. It is wearisome, however, when the people who have the power to right a wrong first have to be persuaded to admit that the wrong exists. The Coming Home authors are adamant that it is not an attack on the present Government. In the world of adversarial politics, however, to highlight a problem that is not being solved is to open a new front upon which the opposition parties can make an assault.

To get beyond this first, knee-jerk reaction, it is necessary to recognise that poor housing is not an issue to be thought of in isolation. Solving the housing crisis is a way to solve many of the problems that flow downstream from it: poor health; susceptibility to viruses through overcrowding; the immobility of the workforce; and, not least, this country’s sum of climate-changing emissions. If alleviating the misery of eight million people is not enough of an incentive, then stopping these other costly and intractable problems makes simple economic sense. And a 20-year strategy even has political appeal: it takes a significant issue ofF the party-political agenda, and it challenges the opposition parties to contribute to a success that happens on this Government’s watch. How can the electorate not respect a government that initiates a genuine solution, and in a way that restores maturity to the UK’s degraded political discourse?

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