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Housing reform cannot be left to the Government alone, says Archbishop of York

26 February 2021

Commission’s report is widely welcomed by those in sector

Susie Coen

Salisbury City Almshouse, one of 1600 represented by the Almshouse Association, which has pledged to establish 5000 more almshouses in response to the Coming Home report

Salisbury City Almshouse, one of 1600 represented by the Almshouse Association, which has pledged to establish 5000 more almshouses in response to the...

THE housing crisis cannot be left to the Government to solve, but is the responsibility of everyone, from individuals to the whole Church, the Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, has said.

In the Church Times this week, Archbishop Cottrell writes that the Archbishops’ Commission on Housing, Church and Community had sought to build on a long Christian tradition of church involvement in housing. Its first report, Coming Home, published on Sunday, recommends that partnerships be established with housing associations, charities, and local authorities to develop affordable housing on some of the Church’s 200,000 acres of land.

It also recommends a 20-year political programme to improve the quality and affordability of the nation’s housing stock; a short-term reform of the benefits system; a review of tenancy agreements; and an improvement in the stock of temporary housing.

Archbishop Cottrell writes: “The report has some strong things to say to Government. We don’t just need more houses, but more truly affordable houses. . . Yet it cannot just be left to Government. We are all involved in this.

“The Commission argues that the Church, as a significant landowner in England, has to lead by example by getting involved in addressing housing need, whether that is providing land to build more truly affordable houses or, at the local level, parish churches’ getting involved, where they can, in relation to the housing need that surrounds them every day.”

The Church Commissioners, in response, say that they are supportive of “the need for a holistic approach to the housing sector”, and will make a commitment to “developing a framework with independent specialists which we will use to assess the environmental, social and governance (ESG) aspects of our development land holdings”.

The First Church Estates Commissioner, Loretta Minghella, said: “This ESG framework will underpin our management of development land in our portfolio and ensure it is used in the most sustainable way possible, thereby reinforcing the Commissioners’ mission to support the Church of England’s ministry.

“In addition, the Church Commissioners intend to become a signatory to the 2020 UK Stewardship Code and will submit a Stewardship Report to the Financial Reporting Council in line with the principles of the 2020 Code, which for the first time requires reporting on our responsible investment approach across all asset classes.”

The report, particularly its promise of church land for social housing, has been widely welcomed. The Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick, described it on Twitter as “very thoughtful”, and said that “to see building new social housing on church land affirmed as central to their mission” was extremely welcome.

The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, said: “The provision of secure, decent housing for all is a hallmark of a good society. Change for the better can only be achieved by a radical reshaping of calculations involved in the provision of housing and by a wide and generous cooperation between us all.”

The chief executive of Shelter, Polly Neate, described the show of leadership and action from the Church as “brilliant”. “Homelessness isn’t inevitable. It’s the result of decades of political failure to build social homes. . . The Church is right that homes have to be affordable to local people and tied to local incomes. This is what social housing does, which is why we want to see the Church, the Government, and other landowners play their part in building a new generation of social homes.”

The chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH), Gavin Smart, said that the recommendations in Coming Home presented a “clear and useful roadmap” to solving the crisis, not only by building more affordable homes, but by ensuring that the existing housing stock was “in a safe and good condition to be certain these homes are fit for the future”.

Responding to criticism that the Church “too often protects its resources to sustain the institution rather than to deliver the mission”, a member of the Archbishops’ Commission, David Orr, wrote in an article on the CIH website on Tuesday: “Of course, institutions have to be sustained and supported. If they collapse, there is no prospect of delivering the mission. We all know, though, of occasions where the protection of the institution becomes the de facto mission — not just in the church.”

Mr Orr, who is former chief executive of the National Housing Federation, continued: “This tendency in the Church is robustly challenged in the Commission’s report, with a clear call for the Church Commissioners to make some of their land directly available for housing in support of the church’s housing mission, putting social benefit ahead of best possible price. As a statement of intent, this really could be a game changer.”

Practical responses to Coming Home have been offered. The Almshouse Association has committed itself to building 5000 new almshouses for a further 6000 residents by 2030. Its chief executive, Nick Phillips, said on Wednesday: “This tried and tested model of almshouses provides genuinely affordable housing. . . Historically aimed at senior residents, many are now providing homes to younger beneficiaries, key workers, and families. We are delighted to continue to work closely with the Church in helping those in housing need.”

The Head of Planning for the Duchy of Cornwall, Nick Pollock, is to support work of the Commission in partnership with one of its members, Canon Chris Beales, and the Gloucester diocesan secretary, Benjamin Preece Smith. From 1 March, the group will help parishes to respond to local housing issues and build strategic relationships with other denominations and organisations, including planners, developers, and housing associations.

The Bishop of Chelmsford-elect, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, who was recently appointed as the first lead bishop for housing, said: “It is wonderful news to know that there will be an Executive Team as well as an Advisory Board to carry forward the work of the Commission. It will be a privilege to work alongside people who bring so much experience, expertise and commitment to the area of housing.”

Archbishop Cottrell concludes in his Church Times article: “The housing crisis might feel like one massive problem among many. The pandemic has exacerbated inequality, hit the poorest the hardest, and meant that we are all stuck in our homes. Many clergy are stretched and exhausted from meeting extensive community needs during this past year.

“The Commission intends its work to be an offer of resources, not a demand for further work — but I believe firmly that even one or two individuals, small groups of people, can be a powerful and prophetic voice for change.”

Comment, pages 12-13

Extracts from the report, page 14

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