It was autumn, 1966. England had won the World Cup, the Beatles were going strong, and London was the fashion and music capital of the world. And then Cathy Come Home burst onto the nation’s then black-and-white TV sets one evening in November.
Its title was innocuous but its impact explosive. Ken Loach’s TV drama told the story of a young couple who descend into homelessness and family breakdown due to the network of complex housing issues facing people at the time. These included overcrowding, an unstable rental market, the constant threat of eviction, social housing waiting lists, homelessness and, of course, the impact on family and community life.
A grainy TV programme from 55 years ago may seem a long way from today’s world, but in those years how far have we really come in tackling housing need? The answer is not far enough. In 1966 there were 12,400 people in temporary accommodation supplied by local councils. Today there are a quarter of a million.
Across the UK, eight million people currently live in substandard housing, 800,000 people are in overcrowded households and one in five households face real difficulties in paying their mortgage or rent. Churches up and down the country know this only too well; they offer shelter to homeless people, try to help those struggling to pay essential bills, and see foodbanks triple in size in a pandemic. While some progress has been made, we still have a housing crisis.
“What has been lacking in the housing sector is any idea of a long-term strategy and a picture of what we’re aiming at.”
Successive governments have tried to solve this. Policies have come and sometimes gone: Right to Buy, starter homes, Help to Buy, shared ownership and many more. Some have helped, some have harmed, yet the housing crisis has defeated governments of both left and right for half a century or more. In the last 20 years alone, the policy of simply building more homes – three million of them – has not led to greater stability, but instead to 2.5million extra homes finding their way into the more unstable private rental market.
This short-termism is at the heart of the problem. With our electoral cycle of five years, if a particular government’s policy is not to the liking of landowners, they can simply sit on their hands before letting land become available until a new policy comes in that is more favourable.
Housing ministers last even less time. Every time a new minister comes in, they naturally want to make their mark by introducing a new policy – but without any clear long-term plan.
What has been lacking in the housing sector is any idea of a long-term strategy and a picture of what we’re aiming at.
First, we don’t have any very clear notion of what good housing looks like. We know what the point of the NHS is: high class health care, offered to everyone regardless of wealth, free to all at the point of need. In the same way, we need an agreed picture for housing. That’s why the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Housing Commission has offered a vision of what good housing is: homes that are sustainable, safe, stable, sociable and satisfying.
But we also need a long-term housing strategy. Climate change is a huge problem but at least we now have an idea of what we are aiming at, a long-term strategy that every government of whatever political stripe has to buy into: zero carbon emissions by 2050.
“We don’t just need more houses, we need more good quality houses that people can genuinely afford.”
To solve the housing crisis, we need a similar long-term goal. Our housing crisis is really an affordability crisis. We don’t just need more houses, we need more good quality houses that people can genuinely afford.
What if we were to set a target for the number of truly affordable homes we need in 20 years’ time? What if we were to work out the financial gap between the cost of providing them and what they would cost at normal market prices? What if successive governments then had the task of planning ahead how to meet that gap by whatever means necessary?
The Church of England is stepping up to play its part. We own land and property and are looking to make some of that land available for affordable housing, and inviting others to do the same, even though it is bound to mean an element of sacrifice. Jesus taught us that there are two simple tasks at the heart of human life: to love God and to love our neighbour, whoever they happen to be. If that neighbour doesn’t have somewhere safe, stable and satisfying to live in, then we must do all we can to help them find that.
Thirty years ago, ideas such as the minimum wage as a way of fighting poverty and the need for radical policies on climate change seemed fringe issues – cranky policies proposed by a few wild and weird figures on the edges of political life. Now they are mainstream, and every government has to sign up to them. We need the same for housing.
We need a vision of what a good home looks like, and a long-term strategy to build the kind of homes and communities that we all want to live in. Otherwise, we will still be talking about a housing crisis in fifty years’ time.
Justin Welby is the Archbishop of Canterbury
Dr Graham Tomlin is the Bishop of Kensington