Bishop of Rochester call for improvements to housing

On 3rd June 2015, during the debate on the Queen’s Speech, the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd James Langstaff, spoke on improvements needed to the housing market and the far-reaching impacts that these would have. The text of his speech is below and can be watched online here:

Bishop of Rochester

The Lord Bishop of Rochester: My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate on the gracious Speech. I am delighted to follow the noble Earl because he has paved the way for me in reminding us of some of the contributions which were made in yesterday’s debate on matters to do with housing and the proposed housing Bill. He has illustrated the points rather more graphically and personally than I might be able to do. I make that connection between yesterday and today because I think it is very clear that issues to do with housing have a real relevance to the matters which are our main focus in today’s debate in your Lordships’ House. For example, research over decades has underlined the point which has just been so graphically made—that there is a clear connection between the quality and conditions of housing on the one hand, and people’s mental and physical health and well-being on the other. There can be very little debate about that; I do not need to labour the point.

In relation to education, it is just common sense to note that housing stability and the stability of households have a marked impact on the educational achievement of children from those households, not least when we are thinking about the most vulnerable children in our communities and in our society. Put very simply, if a child moves home frequently because the family is in insecure housing, for example, that cannot but have an impact on the educational outcomes as far as that child is concerned, however great the efforts of those who are charged with the education of children in those circumstances. I will not labour the points, but in those and other respects, the provision of good, appropriate and affordable housing is clearly vital if we wish to achieve our best aspirations in the areas before us today of health, education and welfare.

Yesterday there was considerable attention given to the proposal in the Queen’s Speech and in the proposed housing Bill in relation to the extension of right to buy to housing association tenants. I will spare noble Lords my thoughts on that particular thing, because all the points were well and ably made by different noble Lords in yesterday’s debate. However, if time allows, I will comment on three related matters.

Housing associations—and I declare my past membership of various housing association boards—are much more than providers of housing. Reference has already been made in today’s debate to housing associations as providers of welfare and care services. Among other things, in different places they offer debt and welfare advice; many work with the most vulnerable in our society in offering different kinds of social and health care. Many housing associations have initiated schemes around employment, training and employability. They are very well placed to do this because of their integration into local communities in many cases, and they do it very well. They have a noble history of innovation and enterprise, and capacity to integrate housing with social and community well-being. It is therefore vital that we do not in any way undermine the capacity of housing associations to make their contribution in those ways.

When we come to look at the proposals in the proposed housing Bill I hope that we will look very carefully at those things, including right to buy, which could undermine the stability and sustainability of those organisations. I therefore support the call, which has just been echoed to the Government, to think carefully about the legislation to make sure that we do not have any unforeseen consequences for the capacity of those organisations to do the things that they do beyond the provision of housing plain and simple.

I turn to our rural communities. In many villages we have five or six affordable or social homes, and often the planning permission was granted for those on the assumption that they would remain available for social rent in perpetuity. The diversity of tenure which they represent is vital for the economic and social vitality of those places, including sometimes the sustainability of village schools. At present there is an exemption under the current legislation with regard to right to buy when it applies to smaller communities, and I urge the Government to consider the extension of that exemption when the new legislation comes forward in relation to right to buy for housing association properties. It is vital for the sustaining of these rural communities in our midst.

My third comment is on the private rented sector, which is becoming of increasing importance in our housing landscape. However, it is a sector which, at times at least, is marked by short and insecure tenancies—and insecurity, therefore, in family situations and household life. I have already made the point that stability of housing has potential good effects in terms of children’s education and in terms of health and well-being more generally. I do hope, therefore, that at some point in the life of this Parliament it might be possible for legislation to be framed which will offer the possibility of longer-term secure tenancies in the private sector. It can be done—it has been done in other nations—and it would have profound good effects for our communities and for the well-being of families and individuals. It has benefits not only for tenants but also for landlords.

Lastly, because the time is ticking away, I underline the willingness of churches and faith organisations to play our part, not least in places where considerable new housing development is being brought forward, not least in my own diocese of Ebbsfleet and other such places. We have the will to engage positively, not least so as to play our part in creating the kind of community infrastructure that is necessary for the delivery of good health, education and welfare in our communities. In Ebbsfleet we are already in conversation with developers and with the development corporation about possible schools, childcare initiatives, community provision of one kind or another, and the placing of workers on the ground early in the day to help build communities. We want to work with government and with all concerned to ensure that collections of houses become places where people wish to belong and where their true and full welfare may flourish.