My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, for securing this debate and the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for his comments. I would like to make a slightly different point about housing as a spiritual issue. It is not just about meeting physical needs but about providing the stability and security without which no one can grow and flourish. I think we all agree, therefore, that there is little doubt that the scarcity of affordable housing is one of the most urgent crises facing our nation, for it affects our cohesion, our well-being and our prosperity, and the growing homelessness on our streets is the outward sign of an inward and debilitating spiritual malaise.
We heard about figures in Manchester. The housing charity, Crisis, estimates that on any one night in Britain at the moment, 8,000 people are sleeping rough. There are 39,000 households living in hostels and 60,000 people surfing from sofa to sofa. That is before we have considered the thousands of people who want to get on the housing ladder but cannot afford it. I am involved with a number of homeless charities in Essex and east London where I serve, and see the sad and exhausting consequences of this day after day.
The cost of a home—and I underline the word “home”—whether bought or rented, is at the mercy of market forces. London is in danger of becoming a city where teachers, nurses, social workers and even Christian ministers can no longer afford to live, and where ordinary and even relatively well-off middle-class families, the young and the disadvantaged are forced out by escalating prices. Yes, we need a strategic plan.
Jesus famously said that:
“In my Father’s house there are many homes”.
Today, we need a progressive and imaginative housing policy that has many types of homes within it—a much greater diversity. We have heard, and I am sure we will continue to hear in the course of this debate, many statistics. I will not read out a load more, but I want to make it clear that while we applaud what has been done and what is being done, more needs to be done, and it needs to be more joined up.
The challenge in rural areas is particularly acute. The effect of the lack of appropriate housing in rural areas is starting to show in terms of the lack of public services. Primary schools that two decades ago had enough pupils to provide high-quality education are now struggling. The recent change in the funding formula for schools will, I fear, see many more close, and it is housing policies that will enable families with children to return to the heart of rural communities. But it is not only schools that suffer. This lack of social diversity, with predominantly older people in villages and hamlets and long-term families priced out of communities where they would have expected to live in the past, means that a wide range of public services—health, social care, transport and so forth—are under threat.
Again, I see this at first hand in rural north Essex and in many Essex council towns. But as well as rural, the diocese where I serve is urban. In Walthamstow, average house prices have risen by nearly a third in the last couple of years. Even small houses in Walthamstow can now cost £500,000. Historically, this was a community for working-class people, but no longer, and we know that this is repeated all over London. Younger people with families who bought shared equity or other forms of starter homes are unable to move into larger properties. But housing developers favour larger houses with larger prices. I therefore find, as I go about, that I hear stories of children of different genders having to share a bedroom long beyond the ideal age—which in other policies such as the bedroom tax the Government have set at 10—and children and parents having to sleep in the sitting room in order create enough sleeping space. We are in danger of creating ghettos where high-income and low-income households live separately. In London and in the countryside that is getting acute. So we not only need more building, but variety and diversity of tenure and in the right place.
In rural areas, it used to be required that the development of smaller plots included social housing. However, that requirement has been removed and it is unclear from recent Parliamentary Answers to Written Questions from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans whether any monitoring of this policy’s impact has been made.
Finally, I want to say something about the difference between a house and a home, a housing estate and a community. A house becomes a home, and a housing estate a community, when it provides for not just a physical need but contributes to the diversity of provision for individuals and families through a wider network of the schools, healthcare, other services, recreation—of course, I will also say—churches, mosques, temples and synagogues that make a community work.
The Church, with our roots in every community, is able and willing to help; already we are, in our own small way, pioneering a number of imaginative solutions. In Gloucester, a vicarage redevelopment is providing a new vicarage and a load of other social housing as well. In east London, our diocese is planning to redevelop a number of church sites where the church buildings were either badly built or badly designed. We reckon we can provide 600 affordable housing units, as well as worship space and community facilities.
We need imagination and conviction as well as investment. It is not just about building houses, but building homes; not just about new estates, but flourishing communities; not just about putting a roof over someone’s head, but a foundation beneath their feet.