Housing in the South East

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:51 pm on 7th June 2000.

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Photo of The Bishop of Guildford The Bishop of Guildford Bishop 3:51 pm, 7th June 2000

My Lords, my childhood home was a small privately rented house. It had been rented by my grandparents before my parents took it over. The rent was small. Indeed it was so small that when my father asked for some repairs to be done the landlord suggested that he bought the house, which he did in the 1950s for £900. For all its inadequacies—and there were many—it was our home. That was as true when we rented it as when we bought it. It was in that house that my parents created our family. It was in that house that we loved each other and fought each other, welcomed our wider family and community. We prayed together and we broke bread together around the table. That is where we grew up to be the people we became. It was a house, but it was much more: it was a home. It was there for us, offering us security, as, along with so many others in those years after the war, we struggled to make ends meet and to keep the family alive.

I am president of the Churches National Housing Coalition. We support the National Housing Federation campaign with its wonderful slogan, "Our homes our future". In the South East the NHF has produced an important report on housing needs in the region to the year 2016. That report is called Who needs Housing? Of course the people need housing. They need homes in which they can fulfil their vocations in marriage and family, work and leisure, politics and religion. That reality is the basis for the moral and spiritual dimension of this issue, which is that if we leave people without homes or living in homes which are not fit for their human dignity, we are offending the fundamental moral principles of God's goodness to us all.

We have a particular kind of housing crisis in the South East. It is borne of economic growth and development. The fact is that London and the South East is the motor driving our national economy and shaping our future. History—and indeed experience around the world—tell us that people will gather where there is economic opportunity. If people gather, they will need housing. History also tells us that we would be foolish to bury our heads in the sand and pretend that that is not the case, or leave it to market forces to sort out. We need a strategy for dealing with growth in London and the South East.

The NHF report points out that while there are significant numbers of people who are doing extremely well—and we have heard about some of them this afternoon—in the region, there are also many people on average or below average incomes. It is they who are feeling the crisis in our housing policy. The crisis is one of cost. As others have said, we do not have sufficient affordable housing in the region. If you want to buy a house in Surrey this year, you will need a lot of money. In the year to March 2000 the price of a small three-bedroom semi-detached house in Guildford rose by 22.5 per cent. You would be fortunate in the summer of this year to buy such a house for anything less than £160,000. To afford such a house you would probably be a double-income family, taking on a large mortgage, possibly supported by inherited or family wealth. Many people just cannot afford this.

If you then look at the rented and social sector of housing, the news is equally bad. Affording the rents of social housing—either local authority or independent social landlord housing—is very difficult for those on low or modest incomes, many of whom do not qualify for housing benefit. The average rent in Surrey for social housing is approximately £50 per week higher than in the private rented sector.

The NHF report suggests that we shall need at least 360,000 social houses with affordable rents by the year 2016. People in local government have suggested to me that it is important that we set percentage targets for affordable housing in the region and that the provision of social housing is crucial to achieving that target. We must also bear in mind that many local authorities still have large accumulated reserves from council house sales. We need to know what the intentions of the Government are with regard to investing those in the housing needs for the region.

The issue is about people. The issue is about teachers and nurses, people in public service, police and those serving the social needs of the community, those who run our transport systems and who service us in many ways. It is they who, if they are not already adequately housed, are struggling to meet the cost demands of all sorts of housing in our region. I know of people in our churches with children who are in despair because they cannot afford the housing costs in Surrey. I am certain that that is true in many other parts of the region as well.

There have been many and various estimates of what the actual housing need is. Many of them talk in terms of 800,000 or more houses. No doubt there will be considerable debate around such figures. I suggest that it is not enough to approach this challenge simply by thinking in terms of finding brownfield sites and building houses on them. Yes, indeed, we need to use our precious land appropriately. But houses are homes for people. People have many needs if their lives are to have security and hope. Good schools and churches, community facilities, leisure opportunities, transport and a clean environment, local shops and services are necessary. When we build houses, we are either building community or destroying it.

One of the features of life for people in the South East is stress. Huge demands are made on people and families to meet the challenges of growth and development. If we do not build houses with a view to building homes and communities, we shall simply be adding to that stress. Building houses on brownfield sites solves nothing if we do not address what homes should mean for people in their humanity.

I came to Surrey over five years ago from South Yorkshire. I observed one thing in common between the derelict sites of South Yorkshire and the wealthy estates in some parts of Surrey. It was not that both had inadequate street lighting. It was also that none had any community facilities, except possibly golf courses. There were no shops, no schools, no places of meeting, no financial services. There were just houses with people locked in them.

If we are to have the levels of development in the South East such as have been talked about in this House today, then we must not make those mistakes. As we develop housing in our region, we need a mixed economy of housing and the issue of affordability must be addressed. But we need to ensure also that when we build houses, we build homes. I believe that in building homes, we are building communities for our future where people care for one another. Only by such means can we begin to meet the moral and spiritual demands of this issue.

We must not allow this matter to sink into a political argument about numbers. We must address the issue of what housing means and begin to do something about it at this moment of development.