Bishop of Newcastle on importance of building homes, communities, not just houses

On 2nd March 2017 the House of Lords debated a motion from Lord Hollick “That this House takes note of the Report from the Economic Affairs Committee, Building More Homes (1st Report, HL Paper 20).” The Bishop of Newcastle, Rt Revd Christine Hardman, spoke in the debate:

Newcastle 2The Lord Bishop of Newcastle: My Lords, I warmly welcome this excellent report from the Economic Affairs Committee. My conversations with local authorities, housing associations and chamber of commerce colleagues in the north-east have endorsed the power of its analysis. The report demonstrates the complexity and long-standing dysfunctionality of the housing market with a terrifying clarity.

Recognising that my six months working in an estate agents in the early 1970s will not quite cut the mustard, I will not attempt to speak to the many technical aspects of the report and the White Paper, which I also welcome. I will leave that to the many noble Lords who are far more qualified than I am to do so. I want to speak about the crucial significance of this issue to human dignity and flourishing, and the kind of society we aspire to build.

One of the greatest social thinkers in recent history was Archbishop William Temple, Archbishop of York for 12 years and then Archbishop of Canterbury during the Second World War. He wrote:

“Every child should find itself a member of a family housed with decency and dignity, so that it may grow up as a member of that basic community in a happy fellowship unspoilt by underfeeding or overcrowding, or by dirty and drab surroundings”.

With those words before me, this afternoon I want to focus on the importance of building homes and communities, not just houses. If we are to do this, we need homes that people want to live in in places where they need them. We need communities in which people want to put down roots. The first key factor is the need to have an increase in access to home ownership, particularly for young people, so bringing new people and young families into the community. Communities cannot be built on transient private renters. The Government are to be congratulated on their efforts in this regard—for example, the Help to Buy scheme and the proposals for starter homes—but more needs to be done.

Just how much was brought home to me on a delayed train on the east coast line a couple of weeks ago when I had a chance to have a conversation with a young woman who lives in Stockton. She was excited because the following day she was going to move into a house she was buying. She was a nurse in her mid-20s. She had been able to buy the small house in Stockton, which is a low-price housing market, because she had stayed at home while she was at university and her parents had subsidised her living and she had a small legacy from a grandparent. That it had taken her, a nurse in her mid-20s, that much effort and that long to be able to achieve a modest house in Stockton demonstrates that it is almost impossible for many of our young people to achieve the same thing. For young people who do not have access to the bank of mum and dad, a 10% deposit, even in less expensive housing areas, can be an insurmountable barrier.

There is also some evidence, which surprised me, that many young people are not aware of the possibilities of home ownership and do not know what the options are. Research by the North East England Chamber of Commerce suggested that just one-third of the students and young people questioned knew what a mortgage was. Nine in 10 were unware of starter homes, and only half were aware of the Help to Buy scheme. I wonder whether our higher education institutions and employers can do more in terms of financial education for our young people.

The second key factor in building homes and communities, not just houses, is the key imperative of having genuinely affordable housing to rent for local people, as has already been mentioned. Home ownership and social housing, particularly local authority social housing, are all too often posed as alternatives. People often have an ideological commitment and pose a false dichotomy between the two kinds of provision. We cannot afford that false dichotomy. We need both kinds of provision. We need home ownership and genuinely affordable housing that provides safe and stable accommodation for those on the lowest incomes. Providing this is something we have not got right in recent years. Affordable housing completions are at their lowest level for 24 years.

The recent White Paper’s shift in focus towards rented accommodation is welcome and needed. In Newcastle and North Tyneside, there are encouraging signs that our local authorities are doing their best to respond to this need. North Tyneside Council is committing to build 3,000 affordable homes by 2023, and Newcastle City Council delivered 1,000 homes last year. Building More Homes and the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, made the point that initiatives such as this would be encouraged by the lifting of local authority borrowing caps. Will the Minister confirm whether the White Paper commits the Government to looking at this? I did not find this point quite clear when I read the White Paper.

We also need to support the work of our housing associations. In my conversations with some of them, they stressed the need to be able to sustain a commercial business case, and they are particularly concerned about the impact of the 1% rent reduction in social housing. Will the Minister comment on that point?

Finally, building homes and communities, not just houses, also means providing homes for people in every walk of life. We need a strong supported-housing sector so that young people, especially those on the edge of care, can find a safe home. We need supported housing for the elderly and disabled so they and we will benefit from their inclusion in communal life, which will add to the rich diversity of local communities. I shall make one point on that: Newcastle City Council, like the housing associations, is finding that the 1% rent reduction in social housing has had a particularly negative impact on the supported-housing sector.

Back in 1941, it is very likely that the heart of Archbishop William Temple would have been warmed by this excellent report. That is certainly the case for this bishop today.

Lord Beecham (Lab):… I refer to the 104-page White Paper with its glossy cover, published this month, a year after the House began its protracted scrutiny of what is now the Housing and Planning Act. The title is Fixing our Broken Housing Market. It tells us something about the Government’s attitude to housing that they should apparently see what is, at its heart, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle pointed out, a major issue of social policy primarily in terms of the market. Of course, the market is part of the issue, but it is not the only aspect that has to be addressed fundamentally….. I should also remind noble Lords that I am a member of Newcastle City Council and an honorary vice-president of the Local Government Association. Perhaps I could advise the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle that in my ward and others work is being done to provide affordable social housing, although not in the numbers that we would ideally like to see.

Lord Young of Cookham (Con, Minister):… The figure of £1.4 billion was referred to by a number of noble Lords as extra money available for affordable housing. In deciding how that money should be spent, the right reverend Prelates the Bishop of Newcastle and the Bishop of St Albans stressed the importance of stable communities where young people can buy a home and have a stake in the area in which they live. We were invited by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans not to overlook the needs of rural housing. That is, indeed, a priority and there is a new community fund to provide £60 million per year to support housing in rural areas. It is interesting that in the Neighbourhood Planning Bill a number of neighbourhood plans came forward with more homes in their village or community than were actually required by the district plan. That addresses the point so well made by the noble Lord, Lord Best, that nimbyism is moving on, although it may not have totally disappeared….. We want to see local authorities deliver new council houses, as stressed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle. Numbers of new council homes have been increasing year on year, and they are an important source of new supply, particularly in areas where there is acute housing need.