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Archbishop of Canterbury backs call for radical action to tackle housing crisis

01 May 2024

Political responses lack ambition and urgency, says report


BY THE end of the UK’s next Parliament, no household on an average income or below should be obliged to pay more than 35 per cent of their disposable income on direct housing costs, a new vision for housing, endorsed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, suggests.

Homes for all: A vision for England’s housing system, launched in the House of Lords last week, argues that tackling the country’s housing crisis necessitates proposals that “move beyond incremental change. They must add up to nothing less than system transformation.”

Housing should be elevated above party politics, it argues, through a cross-party commitment to a long strategy (it estimates 30 years) and the establishment, in law, of a new Housing Strategy Committee to hold future governments to account. Among the 25 “key outcomes” set out in the vision is that homelessness should be “all but eradicated”.

The vision is a partnership between the Church of England — represented by the Bishop of Chelmsford and lead bishop for housing, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, leading a cross-party steering group in the House of Lords — and the Nationwide Foundation, established as a charitable foundation by the Nationwide building society (News, 22 September 2023). It is supported by organisations such as the National Housing Federation, Crisis, Housing Justice, and the Centre for Policy Studies.

The report offers a critical diagnosis of political responses to date, arguing that “almost all the measures that successive governments have tried have been short-term initiatives, many of which have made things worse, not better.” It identifies “a lack of policy stability, ambition and urgency across successive governments, and a failure to connect the issues through a systemic and coordinated approach”.

While “numerous thoughtful, coherent reports” have explored the reasons for, and solutions to, the housing crisis, “there is no collective national vision of what the purpose of housing policy is or what it is designed to achieve, and therefore politicians and the public have no shared understanding of what good looks like.”

“I’ll huff and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow apart your hopes of having a house of your own”

The suggested vision is encapsulated as “An end to the stress and worry of being locked out of home ownership. Everyone having a safe, warm home that supports their health. Homes for all that release the constraints of poverty. All of us going into our later years with the sense of comfort and dignity that comes from a secure place to live. Every child having the stable foundation they need to thrive.”

Twenty-five “key outcomes” are set out, including: “People should not need to spend more than an agreed percentage of their income to secure housing that meets their needs and still have sufficient income after paying housing costs” (35 per cent is suggested as “illustrative” of the scale of action required by the end of the next Parliament). Another is that “house prices and rents rise on average only in line with inflation over time.”

With cross-party support, the next Parliament should, it suggests, enshrine in law both the vision and the creation of a Housing Strategy Committee to provide annual reports to Parliament on progress and to hold governments to account.

Having criticised “short-termism”, the report suggests that delivery of the vision will require “consistent implementation and investment for up to 30 years”. But it also says that work should start immediately, and suggests that some targets might underpin the first five years of a 30-year strategy.

Among these targets is the setting of a housing-supply target. At least 120,000 of the 300,000 additional homes a year (a government commitment) should be “social and affordable homes”, it says. “Social rented homes are the only type of housing genuinely affordable to those on the lowest incomes; increasing their number should be a priority.” While its proposals are not costed, it warns that “We will not deliver the level of new housing we now require without substantially greater government involvement and investment.”

Meeting the target would require “considerable institutional change”, including “greater use of public-interest-led collaboration in land purchase, assembly and release, taking full account of social value”, and “a sustained shift to affordable and social housing supply”. Such changes would “change the dynamics of development with the aim that more homes will be built at lower rates of return, thereby delivering greater affordability”.

Addressing the housing crisis successfully would “carry consequences for everyone, and some people might initially perceive those consequences as negative”, it says. Some people might need to “accumulate wealth more slowly or be willing to accept changes that, at least initially, they are not enthusiastic about — such as a new residential development in their locality”.

It quotes an earlier report, Coming Home, published in 2021 by the Archbishops’ Commission on Housing (News 26 February 2021), which warned that “lasting change does not come without sacrifice — the sacrifice of privilege, of power, and of potential profit.”

This report had more to say about where sacrifice might be demanded in reforms to the system, and listed Government, landlords, landowners, and developers. It described how, when choosing when to develop land, the latter two could “sit tight and wait for a different government to change the rules again”; argued that developers should contribute more affordable housing (not “the least possible”); and set out possible ways to “reduce land prices and windfall gains to landowners”.

It was also critical of the definition of “affordable” used in housing developments, arguing that “neither the 30 per cent volume policy, nor the 20 per cent price discount, are sufficient.”

Much of this earlier report explored how the Church, as a significant landowner (of 200,000 acres), might contribute to tackling the housing crisis, “using its land assets to help create truly affordable housing, and not simply be driven towards land sales at the highest price”.

It asked whether the Church Commissioners could be “sacrificial” in their development of land, “and accept, if necessary, a lower price for their land in order to deliver more affordable housing”, as “a powerful witness to the nation and world”. One option mentioned was legally changing the Commissioners’ remit to enable such a sacrifice.

Three years on, the Commissioners have made a commitment to building 30,000 new homes on 60 sites in England, of which fewer than one third (9000 homes) are to be affordable (News, 27 May 2022).

On Wednesday, a spokesperson for the Commissioners said that they were bringing forward “substantial new developments that help to address housing need across England. We provide a mix of market and affordable homes in accordance with local planning policy, meet identified social and environmental needs within communities, and adopt the five Coming Home principles: Sustainable, Safe, Stable, Sociable, and Satisfying.

“Where possible, we do seek to go further, for example the delivery of Rural Exceptions Sites where we can provide a higher proportion of affordable housing than local plans mandate.”

Among the statistics highlighted in Homes For All are 1.2 million households on local-authority social-housing waiting lists, and 14 per cent of homes failing to meet the Decent Homes Standard.

On Tuesday, Shelter drew attention to new government statistics showing that a record 145,800 children were living in temporary accommodation: up 15 per cent on last year. It is calling on all political parties to make a commitment to building 90,000 “genuinely affordable social homes” a year.


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