Maiden speech of the Bishop of Rochester: Housing and the Queen’s Speech

“I cannot rest content for as long as there are those without somewhere to call home and, more sharply, without security in relation to the shelter over their head” – Bishop of Rochester, 5/6/14

In the second response to the Queen’s Speech by the Lords Spiritual, Rt Rev James Langstaff, Bishop of Rochester delivered a maiden speech about housing. Welcoming some of the provisions in the Queen’s Speech about new home building, the Bishop voiced concern about supply and affordability and raised the work of Housing Justice and the Faith in Affordable Housing project. 

Hear an interview with the Bishop about his maiden speech and his thoughts on joining the House of Lords here

14.04.01 Rochester intro 2

The Lord Bishop of Rochester (Maiden Speech): My Lords, I thought that your Lordships might welcome a maiden speech as a kind of interlude in the midst of today’s business. I am most grateful for the welcome that I have received in your Lordships’ House since my introduction on, of all auspicious days, April Fools’ Day. I am particularly grateful for the courtesy, kindness and helpfulness shown by the Lord Speaker, Black Rod, the Clerk of the Parliaments and their staff.

I enter your Lordships’ House as Bishop of Rochester and thus, in a sense, I represent parts of Kent and south-east London which were for a time predominantly Saxon, if tradition is to be believed, in contrast to the Jutes who inhabited east Kent. For most people, such historic divisions have disappeared along with the history of early medieval times, but of course we in the Church of England hold strongly to our historic divisions, even sometimes holding them with affection, and to this day a great gulf therefore continues to be fixed down the middle of Kent in ecclesiastical terms between the diocese of Rochester and the diocese of Canterbury—it outdates us by a mere seven years.

More seriously, I come to your Lordships also as bishop to prisons, a role that I have recently inherited from the former Bishop of Liverpool who I know brought care, commitment and intelligence to that role both within your Lordships’ House and more widely in the nation. It is a role that I have accepted with enthusiasm and some modest knowledge, not least because I am married to someone who has spent a great deal of the past few years in prison—in her professional capacity, I hasten to add. The title of “bishop to prisons” notwithstanding, the brief covers most of the criminal justice and penal affairs world. In that regard, I look forward to engaging, within the life of your Lordships’ House, with matters such as the proposals for secure colleges, which merit some serious thought and attention, and others that no doubt will be touched on in this House next week.

As an aside, I was aware in some of the reporting of the gracious Speech, or rather its televising, of the continued observations that I am part of an all-male Bench. One of the tasks that I carry at the moment is to take before the General Synod in July this year the draft Measure that would bring that position to an end, and I suppose that I crave your Lordships’ encouragement in those matters later this year.

Noble Lords: Hear, hear!
The Lord Bishop of Rochester: Having been what one might call a jobbing vicar for 23 years, I come to your Lordships’ House with that background. My journey has taken me from living and working in inner-city Birmingham for a number of years and then in more suburban parts of that city to rural north and west Norfolk and, now, within the very mixed socioeconomic geography of north and west Kent and south-east London. In each of those rather varied settings I have found myself drawn to, among other things, a particular interest in and engagement with issues around housing and homelessness. Having served for some 20 years on the boards of housing associations, first in the city of Birmingham and then in East Anglia, and now chairing the trustees of Housing Justice, which is the national ecumenical voice of the churches on these matters, I expect also to take a particular interest in these issues within the work of the House.
A number of speakers in this debate—the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, and the noble Lords, Lord MacGregor and Lord McKenzie—have touched at some length on issues to do with housing. I hope that it is not thought too controversial for what is meant to be an uncontroversial maiden speech if I touch on some of those matters again. It is hard at present to go even 24 hours without being aware of some comment, research report, announcement or other public contribution on housing-related matters; reference has already been made today to the recent intervention of the Bank of England, and there have been many others. At some point, housing-related questions impinge at almost every level on discussions around the economy, family life, community well-being, societal cohesion, welfare policy and much more besides.
Living and working in rural Norfolk for six years, I became aware of the pressing need for small-scale affordable housing developments in villages. They are essential to sustain the diversity and vitality of such places—their community infrastructure, as it were—not least by enabling local younger people to remain in their communities and to be economically active in those places. In the south-east, where I am now, an area dominated by the London housing market, as we have heard, there is a similar need for housing to be available to those working in the lower-waged sectors of the economy—sectors that are vital for that economy. We have heard of the huge pressure on housing, both for purchase and for rent, in the south-east. In our socially disadvantaged communities across the nation, there is a simple need for decent places to live at prices that can be afforded in communities where support networks and opportunities for training and employment are also close at hand.
Why do these things concern me as a bishop, or indeed simply as a human being? Because at a very deep level our human well-being is bound up with our sense of belonging and identity—and, our sense of the global notwithstanding, belonging and identity are in turn bound up with our sense of locatedness and, more specifically, of what we might call home. For those like me who draw inspiration from the Judaeo-Christian tradition, we find in the Hebrew prophets a vision of a person sitting in security beneath their vine and their fig tree, with no one to make them afraid, and at another point there is the encouragement, even when finding oneself in a strange place, to build homes, settle down and plant productive vineyards. These are visions of settledness, locatedness and security. “Home” in that sense is of course about much more than bricks, mortar and roof tiles, but certainly in our culture, and perhaps more specifically in our weather, to think of home without adequate and affordable bricks, mortar and roof tiles is very hard indeed.
As we have heard, the Government’s programme for this Parliament, as outlined yesterday, touches on housing matters at a number of points. There is the expression of a continuing aspiration to increase housing supply by means of reforms of various kinds, including to the planning system, about which we have also heard; initiatives such as the garden cities, the first one of which, atEbbsfleet, will be in my diocese; and support for small housebuilding firms. Alongside this, there is the intention to see new homes built to a zero-carbon standard although, while I welcome that, the big issue is of course the retrofitting of existing homes to those sorts of standards, which is far more difficult.

I await the outcomes of all this with interest because, as I think we all know and acknowledge, there is an awfully long way to go regarding housing supply, markets for housing both for purchase and for rent, and many other issues connected with housing in one way or another. I am well aware that the issues are complex, having worked in the field in one way or another for 25 years, and that there are no easy answers, but I cannot rest content for as long as there are those without somewhere to call home and, more sharply, without security in relation to the shelter over their head. I trust that Her Majesty’s Government will continue to give these matters focused attention for they are foundational, yes, for the economy, but also for our individual, familial and societal well-being.

Lest it be thought that people like me talk about these things and then simply sit back and expect others to make things happen, I would point out that the churches are not inactive in this field. Our work at the sharper end of homelessness, often of course in partnership with others of good will, is well known: winter shelters, advice centres, day care and the like. But it goes further than that: there is, for example, under the umbrella of Housing Justice, the organisation that I chair, a project that we call Faith in Affordable Housing. Developed over recent years, this helps to make church-owned land and property available for development for affordable housing purposes. The resulting developments are small scale but are beginning to emerge in both England and Wales, in urban and rural settings. We need more such initiatives. As well as legislation and policy, we need imagination, creativity, a properly entrepreneurial spirit and a restless passion for what is right and good for the future of our society in this regard. This is for the well-being of us all—and, more particularly, for that of our children and our children’s children.

In the traditional manner, the Bishop was welcojmed to the House by another Peer:

Lord Jenkin of Roding (Con) [extract]: My Lords, it is a particular pleasure for me to congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester on, if I may say so, a very attractive and persuasive maiden speech. Housing is certainly a very important issue, as a number of speakers on all sides of the debate have made clear today. The right reverend Prelate, as he explained, brings very special knowledge and experience in that regard to our debates, and we will very much welcome that.

He has also talked about his work in prisons. That is an enormously important area for the work of the churches, in order to help the prisoners when they come to be released back into the community and hope for their redemption. He did not mention one of his interests, which is urban regeneration. I spent some years at the Department of the Environment dealing with those problems, and I have no doubt that the right reverend Prelate will bring much wisdom to our debates.

I have to tell the House that the right reverend Prelate is very keen on choral singing. As a founder member of the Parliament Choir, I hope he may be persuaded—although I think it somewhat unlikely—to attend the weekly rehearsals and sing in one of the choir’s performances. Perhaps that is asking too much.

It is a particular pleasure to me to be able to welcome the right reverend Prelate’s maiden speech as I have a brother and a son who are in the church and I draw considerable benefit from their advice, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester well knows from what has been said in recent years. I say to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester that we all very much look forward to the contributions he will make to our debates in the future.