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Housing crisis is a ‘national scandal’ says Archbishops’ Commission

21 February 2021

Coming Home report offers church land and recommends 20-year programme for housing

Shelter

The report describes as “a national scandal” the fact that eight million people in England live in overcrowded, unaffordable, or unsuitable homes

The report describes as “a national scandal” the fact that eight million people in England live in overcrowded, unaffordable, or unsuitable home...

IGNORING the housing crisis in England could cost more than solving it, a wide-ranging church report argues.

The report, published on Sunday, is Coming Home: Tackling the housing crisis together, the fruit of nearly two years’ work by the Archbishops’ Commission on Housing, Church and Community (Features, 19 FebruaryNews, 21 January). It describes as “a national scandal” the fact that eight million people in England live in overcrowded, unaffordable, or unsuitable homes, and says that this is “neither accidental nor inevitable”.

The present situation is unjust, the commission says, and the burden of bad housing is falling unjustly on the poor, with costly consequences in terms of physical and mental health, education, employment, and family breakdown.

The commission says that all stakeholders have a part to play in solving the problem. “All of us will have to make sacrifices to enable this vision to become a reality — landowners, developers, landlords, homeowners, as well as taxpayers. We all have a stake in housing our nation.” This includes the Church of England.

Among the list of recommendations:

  • a 20-year political programme to improve the quality and affordability of the nation’s housing stock, agreed by all parties and thus immune to changing political fortunes;
  • a redefinition of “affordability” that relates to income rather than property prices;
  • a short-term reform of the benefits system to meet the shortfall between housing support and the true cost of housing;
  • a review of tenancy agreements, redressing the present imbalance, introducing an explicit duty of care of landlords for their tenants, and removing Section 21 (”no fault”) evictions;
  • an improvement in the stock of temporary housing; and
  • new mechanisms for improving the existing housing stock, 11 per cent of which is defined as sub-standard, and making it more sustainable.

As for the Church of England, work is in hand to address the legal barriers to using church land for social and environmental benefit. The Church Commissioners, who hold about three per cent of their assets in land, are subject to charity law governing the return on these assets. Collectively, the Church of England owns about 200,000 acres of land. The commission has developed a new mapping tool with Knight Frank and Eido Research to show this online.

The Archbishops demonstrated their commitment to the issue even before Coming Home was published by appointing Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, soon to be Bishop of Chelmsford, as Bishop for Housing (News, 21 January).

The commission’s report recommends partnerships with housing associations, charities, and local authorities to develop affordable housing on church land, and has set up a scheme offering expert advice to parishes. Coming Home includes several examples of how churches have helped to create affordable housing.

Speaking before the launch, the chair of the commission, Charlie Arbuthnot, a former funding adviser to housing associations, said: “The question people ask, and I understand why we’re all asking it, is: how much would it cost to get this right?

“I think the really interesting question is: how much would it cost to leave it wrong? Because bad housing, as we’ve just seen, has terrible Covid death-rate outcomes; bad housing leads to poor mental health, which puts huge pressure on the National Health Service; bad housing leads to family breakdown, parent-child breakdown, domestic abuse. . . This is all interconnected.”

The country had jumped in response to the pandemic, he said. And yet eight million people were caught up in the housing crisis. “Why do we not take the same response to that, and say ‘We have to resolve this?’”

The commission saw poor housing as a matter of justice, Mr Arbuthnot said. “And so the question isn’t, where on earth’s the money going to come from. It’s more: the money’s got to come from somewhere; now let’s work out who should rightly be covering this.”

The vice-chair of the commission, the Bishop of Kensington, Dr Graham Tomlin, said: “At the moment, the cost of the housing crisis falls unequally on the poor — the people who live in sub-standard or overcrowded housing. They’re the ones who pay the price.

“You can survive during the lockdown if you live in a sizeable, comfortable house. If you live in an overcrowded, poor-quality house, it’s been really difficult. . . It’s not like there isn’t a cost of the crisis now; but that cost is falling on a certain sector of the population, and that’s unjust and unfair.”

The Archbishops’ Commission pulled together a high level of experience and expertise in the housing field. Besides Mr Arbuthnot and Dr Tomlin, the other commissioners were: Dr Stephen Backhouse, director of Tent Theology; Cym D’Souza, chief executive of Arawak Walton Housing Association and chair of BME National, a collective of housing associations; Canon Chris Beales, a retired priest with a background as a social entrepreneur; David Orr, a former chief executive of the National Housing Federation; the Revd Lynne Cullens, Rector of Stockport and Brinnington, and chair of the National Estate Churches Network; Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol; Sir Robert Devereux, former Permanent Secretary at the Department of Work and Pensions; and Christine Whitehead, Professor Emeritus in Housing Economics at the London School of Economics.

The report puts bones on the commission’s stipulation that good housing should be: sustainable, safe, stable, sociable, and satisfying (Online Comment, 10 February). These values are contained in a draft charter for new housing, which suggests, for example:

Sustainable: adapt and reuse existing building stock where possible; water, waste and energy designed to minimise impact on the environment; plant one tree per house.

Safe: landowner to maintain an interest and participate in the project; design criteria to be built into partnership agreements to ensure compliance.

Stable: encouragement to people to put down roots through community site-management schemes; reference to the wider community.

Sociable: mixed-use dwellings in walkable neighbourhoods; design to ensure that affordable houses are indistinguishable from private-tenure houses, and “pepper-potted” throughout the site.

Satisfying: use design to create distinctiveness and encourage a sense of belonging; ensure that the development fits into the natural landscape.

The commission does not make light of the fundamental economic forces that work against affordability. Sixty per cent of the nation’s wealth is reckoned to be held in property, leading to its being regarded as a financial asset rather than a universal necessity. The report cites the Grenfell Tower fire as one outworking of this, describing it as “the culmination of a culture of neglect, deliberate deception or carelessness, a lack of care for our neighbours and their safety and security, all of which, theologically speaking, are effects of human sin and all of which must be properly addressed”.

Successive governments have attempted to solve the crisis through house-building. Three million new homes were created in the 20 years since 2000. Although the present government target is 300,000 a year, the rate has not increased.

The commission argues that even this rate, equivalent to one per cent of the housing stock, will not solve the crisis: “The primary issue with the housing sector is not just a lack of housing but instead a lack of truly affordable housing, particularly for those on low incomes.”

The answer, the commission suggests, is to take the heat out of property prices through the supply of truly affordable houses, i.e. dropping the existing definition of 20 per cent less than surrounding properties and bringing housing, either owned or rented, within reach of all.

This is why it advocates a 20-year strategy. “We don’t believe that any government will wilfully bring a significant shift downwards in house prices,” Mr Arbuthnot said, “precisely because so much of our perceived net worth is in our house.”

“We’re not saying that you can’t make a profit out of housing,” Dr Tomlin said. “Developers aren’t going to put up houses — and landowners aren’t going to make land available — if they can’t make a profit. But it’s not one of the absolute priorities of what good housing looks like that it makes a profit.”

Mr Arbuthnot spoke of a “justifiable” level of profit margin. “We don’t want to attack that.” But there was already provision that allowed local and central government to demand a higher proportion of affordable housing in any new development, and this should be used.

The dispute over cladding (News, 10 February) illustrates the balance regarding where the cost of affordable housing should land. It was right for the taxpayer to step in, Dr Tomlin argued, but the burden of the cost ought to be borne by developers — though not to the extent of putting them out of business. “It will not help anyone to bankrupt developers, because then they’re out of business, and they can build houses and we need them.”

The commission expresses deep concern about the nation’s communal life, arguing for a need to counter brokenness and fragmentation. “Homes need privacy, yet they should also have porous boundaries, places where generous hospitality to guests and neighbours can be exercised, rather than the ‘Nimby’ mentality that excludes difference.” New developments need to to pay attention these opposing forces: do they “reinforce the divisions between people, isolating them into individual enclaves, or create space for community life”?

This is a Christian vision of housing, the report says, “one that tells the story of the gospel in bricks and mortar”.

 

To learn more about the Archbishops’ Commission on Housing, Church and Community, and to read the report, go here. Read an extract from the report here

Find resources and toolkits for local churches to meet housing need here

An accompanying work, Coming Home: Christian perspectives on housing by Graham Tomlin and Malcolm Brown is published by Church House Publishing at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.49); 978-1-78140-188-0).

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