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Put aside party differences to create affordable housing, Archbishop Welby tells politicians

25 March 2021

ALAMY

A new housing tower block dominates the skyline in Elephant and Castle, in south London

A new housing tower block dominates the skyline in Elephant and Castle, in south London

THE Archbishop of Canterbury has called on the Government and opposition parties to agree on a housing vision that is long-term and beyond party politics.

Archbishop Welby secured a four-hour Grand Committee debate in the House of Lords on Wednesday, during which he presented the substance and vision of the Coming Home report by the Archbishops’ Commission on Housing, Church and Community (News, 26 February). He described the report as “a brilliant, seminal piece of work that has not shied away from challenging the Church before it has challenged anyone else”.

The Commission’s emerging slogan was “good homes, affordable for all”, he said. “We wanted to build a positive vision for housing, one that has been lacking in our English national understanding for many decades and that has a holistic understanding of being human at its heart.

“No one, not even Government, can solve this on their own. Historic failure under all parties shows that. The Church wants to partner with other institutions on the ground: faith groups, local government, charities, housing associations, developers and anyone else who wants to work with us.

“But to transform our housing landscape, there is a need for sacrifice, which will be required from all of us, whether we are individuals inclined to nimbyism, organisations and companies whose primary concern is profit, or governments whose priorities are influenced by short-term election cycles.

“The Commission calls for a long-term, non-partisan strategy to deal with the crisis. The mess we find ourselves in is not the fault of any one government of the Left or Right; it is more than 40 years in the making. Simply building more houses will not solve the problem. We cannot build them fast enough to make any meaningful impact on prices and, realistically, what government would intentionally reduce house prices and thus the housing wealth of a large part of the electorate? Even if they did, electoral cycles are not long enough to incentivise long-term strategic thinking.”

Archbishop Welby called on the Government to adopt a definition of affordable housing which was based on income levels rather than market rates, and to outline any plans that it had to increase the proportion of genuinely affordable new homes being built.

Data from the Government’s Public Land for Housing Programme showed that only 15 per cent of housing on land sold by the public sector was affordable, and less than three per cent was for social rent, Archbishop Welby said. He asked: “Will all parties commit to ensuring that the law enables the use of all public sector and charitable land to maximise long-term social and environmental values, not just a crude measure of highest price?

“I believe that this is a fight for the heart and soul — of the Church of England, yes, but also of our country. Where is our treasure? Is it in shoring up riches for ourselves, or do we say that our treasure is in our neighbours, our communities, those who are impoverished and struggling? Where are our hearts?”

“I am adamant that the work of this Commission cannot result simply in words. There has to be action — in the Church and elsewhere. There must be change. Good homes available for all is a moral imperative. . . Millions of people have stayed in their homes to protect their fellow human beings this year. Let us repay them by making sure that everyone has a home which is sustainable, safe, secure, sociable and satisfying.”

Lord Blunkett congratulated Archbishop Welby for the “powerful and heartfelt way” in which he had presented “an unanswerable case”. Building houses for people to live in was “fundamentally about the building blocks of a civilised society”, he said.

In calling for all parties to be able to commit themselves to the “clarion call from the Church of England”, he spoke of long conversations with the the Revd Dr Alan Billings, who served on the Commission that produced the Faith in the City report in 1983-84, “another era of great division. He assures me as a Methodist that it was a commitment underpinned by radical and sustainable theology. I cannot speak to that, but I know that carrying forward reports such as the one that we are debating today will happen only if there is political commitment.”

A former Church Commissioner, Lord Best, was one of several peers to raise the issue of reform of charity law. “The first obstacle to attempts to dispose of a piece of church land or buildings on favourable terms — for example to a community lands trust or a voluntary body working for the homeless — is the confusing legal obligation on any charity to reject all but the ‘best terms reasonably obtainable’,” he said.

“The Church Commissioners have been highly successful in promoting ethical investment of their stocks and shares. . . This sets a precedent for the Commissioners to be a pace-setter also in respect of the church investments in land.”

Lord Best expressed his delight that the Church Commissioners had signed up to adopting the “good behaviour of the 2020 stewardship code when selling land. This is a step in the right direction.”

The Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, called for a resetting of the compass. He said: “Part of the housing challenge facing our nation is that we have not approached this in a sufficiently joined-up way; we tend to first think of homeless people on our streets and of the human tragedy and political, policy, and social failures that this represents.

“However, as we know, this is just the invisible misery on the surface of a larger and far more extensive set of challenges. The key word in this discourse, as with so many of the political challenges we are facing, is ‘together’. We are unlikely to make significant progress until all parts of our society and all parts of Government cohere around a common vision and a common set of values that can drive policy over a longer period of time.

“During this past year, we know that inequalities and housing have callously accelerated the spread of Covid, where cramped conditions and lack of access to outside space have meant that those without good homes are also those without good health. This must change.

“Asking for such a change is not naïve optimism; it is a vision of hope that can lift our spirits and stiffen our resolve. To do it is within our grasp. It is a matter of policy and political will. It is the right thing to do, but it will also save us money through improved health, social cohesion and well-being.”

Lord Lilley would like to have seen “a more ringing denunciation of nimbysim” in the report: the “selfish attitude of those who own homes but oppose plans to build homes anywhere near theirs”. The Church “will have to be prepared to be pretty robust when it starts building on church land because it will be faced with nimbyism, but it is possible to face it down”.

The Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, called for “decisions about housing not based on short-term political expediency — whatever might garner a few more votes in a marginal council ward or Parliamentary constituency”, but on the good society to be bequeathed to the next generation.

While welcoming the growth in city-centre living, he deplored “something of a trend first spotted in London: blocks are built and apartments are sold, but no one ever moves in.

“Instead of homes, we are constructing bank vaults in the sky: edifices intended purely to hold value, never people. They have more in common with gold bricks than bricks that build our homes. While so many of our fellow citizens remain homeless or poorly housed, they are a scandal.”

The Bishop of Newcastle, the Rt Revd Christine Hardman, said that her heart and spirit had been lifted by the Archbishops’ Commission’s report. She quoted William Temple: “Every child should find itself a member of a family housed with decency and dignity, so it may grow up as a member of that basic community in a happy fellowship unspoilt by underfeeding or overcrowding, by dirty and drab surroundings.”

She spoke of the challenge of sub-standard private housing across the north of England, and also called on the Government to review the under-occupancy charge, known as the “bedroom tax”, on tenants living in council social housing. The pandemic had shown that “having a spare room that can be used for home working or, perhaps even more importantly, for home schooling, has become an essential.”

The Minister of State at the Home Office and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local government, Lord Greenhalgh, concluded: “The Government welcomes the Church’s commitment to make better use of its land holdings to provide homes, and I know that we will continue a constructive dialogue to help you to achieve its aims.

“We share the Most Reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury’s determination to work together, and I’m happy to commit to exploring collaborative opportunities. Our housing policies must draw on expertise from all corners.”

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