23 Feb 2021
Who needs another report of an Inquiry into housing? I’ve lost count of the number we’ve seen come and go with barely a ripple over the past 10 years. And they were impressive reports reflecting good research and proper thinking about cause and effect. Great policy recommendations abound - but very little change.
It turns out that we do indeed need another report. COVID has laid as bare as can be the challenges so many face in homes that are not fit for purpose - and that’s those who have homes. We have the clear challenge of decarbonising our homes to meet our international legal obligations. We have the scandal of the quarter of a million people living in temporary accommodation, far more than when the nation had its conscience pricked in 1966 by Cathy Come Home. And of course, there is Grenfell.
So the report of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on Housing, Church and Community has arrived at an important time. And having been a member of that Commission, I can attest to the quality and depth of the work that has gone into it.
It has been fascinating being an outsider looking in to the sometimes arcane workings of the church. But I have been equally struck by the experience of being with outsiders looking into our world of housing. There has been much learning for us all.
The Commission has been very aware of the necessity of starting with the church. The work is founded on and, in my view, given moral authority by a theological exploration of the housing mission of the church. As a result, we identified five underpinning values, based on that theology but absolutely strong enough to stand on their own. The Commission asserts that our housing - and communities - should be Sustainable, Safe, Stable, Sociable and Satisfying. No one would dream of suggesting we should produce homes that are unsustainable, unsafe, unstable, unsociable and unsatisfying. And yet that is the reality for millions.
So we looked at the contribution the church itself can make. There are some very powerful signals of intent, from the creation of a suite of resources for parishes and individuals, to the appointment of a Bishop for Housing, the creation of an advisory group and the comprehensive mapping of all church land. And the big one. The recommendation that, where possible, that land should be made available for affordable homes. Best reasonable terms, like best value, should for dioceses and parishes be understood to include social and community benefit.
There is a criticism implicit in the report and made explicit in many of the comments on social media since the launch that the church too often protects its resources to sustain the institution rather than to deliver the mission. 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. Archbishop Welby told us the report would only make an impact if there were things in it which caused him sleepless nights. He clearly wants to put mission before institutional protection - as should all of us working in housing too. Are we really making the most of our resources to deliver our mission?
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.
The Commission then looked at what additional contribution others can make. We have been struck by how absent any sense of shared objective there is in housing. We know what the objectives of the NHS are. We have no similar clarity of the objective of housing policy. This is a vacuum that can only be filled by government. They alone have the democratic authority to undertake this key leadership role. And governments of all stamps have failed this test for decades. Instead of a housing strategy, into the vacuum have been inserted various vacuous initiatives. Anyone for starter homes?
In truth, the overall objectives could be very clear and straightforward. How about: “the objectives of our housing strategy are to ensure that all our citizens can live in warm, safe, genuinely affordable homes, in socially and economically robust neighbourhoods, and to decarbonise and make energy efficient all of our homes”? That shared sense of objective could help us all to work far more effectively together in pursuit of the same goals.
We make further recommendations - that our welfare support system is no longer meeting its objectives in housing support, that we need a rapid growth in public capital subsidy to deliver a huge increase in homes that are really affordable, where affordability is defined as the relationship between price and income, not some notional and irrelevant proportion of market rates. We need a fundamental rethink of how we price the sale of land for residential development so that the value enhancement delivers affordable homes and community facilities rather than unearned super profits for lucky landowners. We call on all landowners, public and private, to put social value at the centre of their thinking, in exactly the way we have asked the church to do. We call for a new tenancy agreement in the private sector with a clear duty of care on the landlord to the tenant, and we call for the cladding scandal to be ended by the 5th anniversary of Grenfell. How shameful is it that we even have to discuss this more than three years after that appalling tragedy.
All of this is expanded on and described in the report and in the executive summary. But the centre of the report is clear. It is called ‘Coming Home - tackling the housing crisis together’. It is, finally, time to get serious about ending the housing crisis, a job that can only be done by a clear, shared national effort to tackle it with vigour, commitment and working together.
David Orr CBE is the former chief executive of the National Housing Federation.