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Government needs to see ‘bigger picture’ to solve housing crisis, says Bishop of Chelmsford

03 November 2023

Long-term solutions are needed, declares Dr Francis-Dehqani

Alamy

A homeless person in Hastings, seen on Monday. Hastings Borough Council has warned that it could become in effect insolvent this year because of its housing costs, which will consume £5.6 million, almost one third of its £17-million budget

A homeless person in Hastings, seen on Monday. Hastings Borough Council has warned that it could become in effect insolvent this year because of its h...

THE scale of the housing crisis has become so vast that it cannot be addressed piecemeal and in the short term, the Bishop of Chelmsford, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, the lead bishop for housing, has warned.

She told the Church Times on Tuesday: “It is so huge it needs a proper cross-party, long-term strategy. Different people can make different contributions, but, in the end, it needs the big picture.”

Dr Francis-Dehqani was speaking in the context of growing evidence that local authorities are struggling to keep pace with the rising rate of homelessness in England, and that several face bankruptcy.

The latest government figures record that, on 31 March, 104,510 households were in temporary accommodation. This represents a ten-per-cent increase on the previous year. Local authorities have a duty to take reasonable steps to prevent and relieve homelessness, but many are already unable to cope financially with a crisis that has been exacerbated by a scarcity of temporary accommodation. Some, such as Birmingham, have already declared themselves bankrupt.

In August, a study by the homelessness charity Crisis said that councils across England were running out of options, as demand from households facing homelessness soared. State of the Nation research had found that almost one quarter of a million households across England were experiencing the worst forms of homelessness.

Thousands were being forced to live in B&Bs and hostels, as councils grappled with finding more suitable long-term housing. As 97 per cent of local authorities struggle to source private rented housing, Crisis warned that, without urgent action to build more affordable homes, homelessness would rise dramatically over the coming year.

That study, led by Heriot-Watt University, drew on a national survey of councils, statistical analysis, and interviews. It showed that 85 per cent of councils across England were facing an increase in homeless people, the highest number in any year since the survey began.

The ongoing freeze to housing benefits, dwindling supply of social housing, and a general lack of affordable homes makes it increasingly difficult to support struggling households, Crisis said. It also drew attention to surging rents and fierce competition in the private rental market, to which local authorities had increasingly turned, to house low-income households.

The long-awaited Renters Reform Bill, which includes provision for abolishing the “no-fault” evictions policy — which, campaigners say, contributes significantly to the current crisis — remains at Committee Stage in the House of Commons.

The latest government figures, published last month, show that the most common age group applying for temporary accommodation is between 25 and 34. The most common length of time for households with children to be in temporary accommodation is from two to five years.

Shelter, the housing and homelessness charity, said in August that the housing crisis would push many local authorities into bankruptcy.

The Church of England’s Coming Home report, published in 2021, concluded that Britain’s housing crisis was “neither accidental nor inevitable” (News, 26 February 2021). It called for cross-party consensus to address the key issues behind it, and established its own housing association, which is partnering with parishes and dioceses to build and manage social homes for people on low incomes.

Dr Francis-Dehqani has brought together a steering group in collaboration with the Nationwide Foundation (News, 22 September). It is made up of cross-party MPs and a cross-bench peer, all of whom agree on the necessity of a broad approach. It has had round-table discussions with politicians and senior players in the housing sector, and has commissioned work on strategy from Professor Ken Gibb, director of the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence.

“The major task now is to convince the politicians of the main parties that this is what is needed,” Dr Francis-Dehqani said. “It’s a two-fold approach; so there’s something about trying to persuade the politicians who have the influence and the power to sit down and work together on this.

“But the other is somehow around public opinion. It seems to me that the public rhetoric and the public conversation can encourage and put pressure on politicians. If there was a growing public voice saying that housing is actually a matter of justice, and that every individual deserves stable, good-quality housing, that would be more of an incentive for the politicians to sit down with that together.

“It cannot be solved with a short-termism that looks only to the next election and the votes coming from that.”

The Bishop acknowledged that, as chair of the steering group, she was not the expert. “I know less than any of them do about about the world of housing, but I have the possibility of creating the space and bringing it together,” she said.

“My experience of involvement since the publication [of Coming Home] is that there is a huge amount of respect and desire to work with us [the Church], and there are lots of people who are wanting to partner with us. Increasingly, the Church is saying, we can’t do this by ourselves. No one group can do this by themselves. There has to be a commonality in the approach.”

She continued: “What was unusual in the Housing Commission report was that it didn’t just throw out a challenge to government and other kinds of stakeholder in land development, but actually challenged the Church to use what we have ourselves, which is a lot of land — and to use that land to put our money where our mouth is.

“There are huge complexities with that because of the piecemeal way that land is held in the Church of England. One of the things the team is trying to do is bring together parishes and dioceses who want to engage with this, and to . . . bring in what is lacking at the minute. A lot of people get the vision, and they want to be able to do something to help, but dioceses and parishes can often lack capacity, confidence, and expertise.

“So we are going to the Archbishops’ Council for some funding to set up a central church development agency to bring in the the expertise and capacity that, individually, dioceses lack. That’s us playing our small part. It’s not going to solve the the housing crisis, but it is us wanting to say we want to be part of the solution.”

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