The Housing Crisis in England and Wales
Speech of Rt Rev Terence Drainey at the Parliamentary Reception of Caritas Social Action Network, hosted by Lord Desmond Browne
20 November 2018
In this month of remembrance, today’s event reminds us that there is more to Catholic social action than organised kindness.
We hear one day after another of bad news and crisis. Public debate has so often become short-term, shallow and acrimonious. It can seem as if we are locked into a struggle we did not choose, along competitive and ideological divides. It tempts us to resign ourselves to feelings of hopelessness for the future… to lock the doors… to close our ears to the reality that we are all in this together.
Among the bad news stories competing for our attention, one stands out. That’s not just because we hear about it so often, but because its existence is something that most people and politicians appear to agree on! Many of us have been calling it ‘the housing crisis’. Today I want to challenge all of us: to reconsider how we understand and respond to that portrayal.
More work is going on to address homelessness than in any other activity of the network of charities represented here today. In England and Wales, the number of people in severe housing difficulties has been rising for some years, with one estimate in 2016 suggesting a quarter of a million people were homeless [Note 1]. We learnt last week that colleagues in the long-established Methodist West London Mission, just down the road from where we stand today, had to suspend some services. In their own words, they were ‘absolutely overwhelmed by the number of people finding themselves homeless and coming to us for assistance.’
For many people in our society, finding and remaining in stable housing is little more than a dream. For many, the realities they face include a rise in insecure jobs; rising gaps between their pay, rent and house prices, and rapid rises in the costs of healthy food. Large numbers of people rely on voluntary food banks to survive. Some young people delay starting a family – if they had a child, they would not make ends meet. Our charities regularly encounter dangerous overcrowding among families in privately rented accommodation. Many people of all ages and health conditions face little choice but to leave their families and communities, just to find a space they can manage to live in.
What can we do?
Christians are called to be a people of Good News. The contagious joy and hope of lives redeemed by grace and truth are to speak for themselves, first and foremost in our love for the neighbour in front of us. Charitable activities and advocacy should reflect the goodness, truth and beauty of an abundant Creator. For Christians, a crisis is an opportunity. It nudges us to renew our mission in our own time and place, to be confident in entering on what might be a long haul, and to learn to love with fewer conditions. In that light, we are compelled to ask ourselves, ‘What more can Catholic social thought and action contribute on housing?’ With the bishops’ support, CSAN’s national team and the ecumenical Centre for Theology and Community have been addressing that question together in some depth. The Centre’s Director, Angus Ritchie, will be saying more on that shortly.
Today I am delighted to launch the first fruit of that collaboration, our new report, Abide in Me, together with a set of case studies on CSAN’s website.
Last week the bishops of England and Wales met for our bi-annual plenary meeting. We welcomed the work undertaken by CTC and CSAN. We recognised the need in society for the availability of housing. And we agreed to encourage Catholic charities and associated institutions to make this work a shared priority until 2030. That timescale aligns with international engagement by the Catholic Church and her official agencies on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. It is the intention of the Bishops’ Conference to write an open letter to the leaders of Catholic charities, with some further encouragement on working together. One emerging example of how this can be done comes from the Conference of Religious, which, with support from the Arise Foundation, published last week Threads of Solidarity. Their report showed how religious orders, far from feeling resigned to fewer vocations, had stepped up to form new expressions of social mission. For example, religious orders in England and Wales have offered properties with a value of over £16m to support work to combat modern slavery and human trafficking.
To our parliamentarians, I want to say that I recognise the challenges you face. Remember that legislation and market forces, while powerful, need to be at the service of promoting human dignity, participation and solidarity in communities, for the long term. I encourage you to explore two points of concern arising from our work.
First, much of the regulatory power in our housing, planning and land systems tends to be short-term and excludes communities. Much planning and housing development has increased social isolation. There is a sense of powerlessness over the loss of local amenities. I encourage you to look more radically at how individuals and communities can truly participate in decision making that affects them, and shaping the places they live in. In particular, I encourage you to use your influence to facilitate more housing development that is community-led and owned.
Secondly, there is a need to consider how public spending can better support communities, local enterprise and sustainable local development. Charities’ income from individual and major donors is around £13bn a year. Total Government spending is around £780bn a year. Charities that have deep social connections in local neighbourhoods have been increasingly forced to compete for public funds, often for short-term payments with more strings attached, and against larger, remote organisations. This further erodes trust and participation in communities, and the priority of labour over capital. I encourage you to take further measures that support local enterprise and the long-term future of local amenities.
Finally, all those of us who have somewhere to live face some tough questions too. As far as we are able, each of us is called to be open to absorbing more deeply into our own lives the joys and sorrows of others. Can we afford to offer a lower rent that would give a family the opportunity for a more dignified life? Can we support local business and work together to make our streets and towns places of welcome and beauty? For the welfare of the places we live in, these questions are ultimately the ones that count.
I thank Lord Browne for hosting today’s event, and all of you for your own contributions to our mission.
Rt. Rev. Terence P Drainey
Bishop of Middlesbrough and Chair of CSAN
Note 1: Postscript – Shelter published new estimates on 22 November 2018, suggesting the figure has increased as at July 2018 to over 284,000 in England and Wales.