Bishop of Rochester calls for more affordable housing

RochesterOn 11th October 2016, Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville asked the government “how they plan to improve the quality and affordability of housing in the United Kingdom”. The Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Revd James Langstaff, contributed to the debate.

The Lord Bishop of Rochester: My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Baroness for creating this opportunity to air these important matters. I had thought that the time was short so was going to confine myself to a very few points and I will resist the temptation to change my plan.

I just received a first draft of research that I commissioned into population trends and housing growth for the next 30 years in my diocese of west Kent, Medway and parts of south-east London. On the basis of known local authority plans, developer plans and projections, a population of 1.3 million is projected to increase by some 25% in that period. That is a lot of new homes—almost certainly 100,000 or more in a relatively small geographical area.

On affordability, if we are to maintain a healthy and mixed economy with jobs at different stages and levels in the employment world, as well as diverse and cohesive communities, it is crucial for a good proportion of those homes to be seriously affordable. I encourage us not to walk away from the debate about what is “affordable”, particularly in areas of high housing cost. As we already heard, ratios of average house price to average income in many parts of the country, not least the south-east, are extremely alarming.

On quality, my point is not so much about the quality of individual homes—some of that was mentioned by other noble Lords—but rather the question of good-quality living space in the broadest sense; that is, neighbourhood and social infrastructure as well as what might be called physical infrastructure. It is fairly easy to say that this is not the strongest suit of the volume housebuilders. Indeed, it is not their reason for existence. Even local authorities, which have an important continuing interest in these matters, are by and large no longer the direct providers of those things that build community and social infrastructure. Those with long experience in doing this are the community and voluntary sectors, including housing associations, residents’ groups, Church and other faith bodies. We have been doing it for a long time.

Personally, I am delighted that in relation to the largest housing development in my area—a pretty big one: Ebbsfleet Garden City—we are already well engaged in conversations with the development corporation, developers and others about these matters of what the voluntary and other sectors can add in terms of community infrastructure. I urge that the capacity of these sectors be recognised, enhanced and ensured, and that, whether in policy documents or other ways, the Government see to it that representatives of these sectors have a place at the various tables where the quality of future housing developments is considered.