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Homes Matter!

Covid-19 restrictions have highlighted the impact which poor housing has on people’s daily lives. Here, Stephen Timms MP, welcomes the partnerships forged by churches and faith groups with government to help people during the pandemic and hopes these can now help resolve the deep structural problems of bad housing and contribute ‘to building back better’.

Easter themes have felt particularly real in the two Easters that have bookended the past year.  In the Bible, and church calendar, Holy Saturday is the day when Jesus has died but not yet risen.  The disciples grieve, mourn and wait.  It is a day of confusion and emptiness.  Much of this year has felt like that. There has been unimaginable grief and loss, and a great deal we still need collectively to work through.  But with almost half the UK population having had our first dose of vaccine, we are able to – and need to! – lean a little more into the hope of Easter Sunday and of Resurrection.

Before Christmas in my Politeia blog I wrote about the contribution of faith groups to communities during the pandemic.  I have seen in my own constituency how – unprecedentedly – the local Council has depended on support from churches and other faith groups.  Research by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Faith and Society, which I chair, has shown that, in the midst of crisis, faith groups have stepped up across the country to partner with local authorities in extraordinary ways.

Throughout the pandemic, the agility, embeddedness, and professionalism of faith groups has enabled them to distribute food parcels, provide pastoral support to the lonely, and work with people in crisis.  They have been bringers of hope.

Last month Archbishop Justin Welby’s Commission on Housing released its final report. It proposed further key roles for these partnerships.

The housing crisis is sometimes thought of as young people having to wait longer than their parents to buy their first home.  That is a problem, but surely not a crisis.  The crisis comprises very large numbers of people trapped at the bottom end of the rental market, paying unaffordable rents for overcrowded, poor-quality homes.  It is one of the biggest social policy challenges facing this generation of politicians.  The problems were serious already.  The pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated them.

I am old enough, just, to remember the 1960s furore over the housing crisis around the television play “Cathy Come Home”, about a family destroyed by inadequate housing.  That furore led to the foundation of Shelter and a wave of council house building.  We are there again now.  Families are being destroyed and lives blighted. 

I think of a family in my constituency comprising Mum, Dad and five daughters in a one-bedroomed council flat which they have been trying to move out of for over ten years.  All seven have been confined at home for much of the year, the five girls all attempting to do their school and college work.  The eleven year old wrote to me:

“Since I was born I have not even had a good day because all this flat does is bring back bad memories.  I sleep on the floor with my two older sisters and every night when my Dad gets up to go to work he always has to turn on the light so he doesn’t step on us.  Due to this I don’t get enough sleep and I can’t concentrate … I am falling behind in class and its because nobody cares about me and nobody wants to see me happy.  I feel like you don’t care because if you did you would help me.”

The Commission’s report, “Coming Home” reflected on the deep values that should underlie housing policy.  It set out: “A good home is a place where we feel safe, it enables us to put down roots and belong to a community, it is a place we enjoy living in and which is a delight to come home to.” That should be the vision that we are aiming for.

It challenged both the Government and the Church.  It recommended development of a coherent, long-term Government housing strategy.  There should be a long-term housing affordability policy with new housing, greater public subsidy, reinstating capital grants and reducing land prices.  There should be a new housing affordability definition, in terms of household incomes rather than market rents; and a review of social security to strengthen housing support.

And it challenged the churches to be involved in structural solutions to injustice.  The pandemic has shown, now more than ever, that faith groups have the motivation and resources to bring about change.  And, increasingly, they are partnering well with Government to do so.

There is a great opportunity for those partnerships to contribute to ‘building back better’, not just intervening in a crisis – building homes on church land, cultivating community on new housing estates, delivering tenancy advice and engaging with the planning system.

As we move out of the pandemic, my hope is that churches and other faith communities will build on the extraordinary energy of crisis response they have demonstrated over the past year, and the deep knowledge they have from being embedded within communities.  I hope they will step up to deep and strategic work in addressing housing injustice.  We will all be better off if they do.

Stephen Timms MP

The Rt. Hon. Stephen Timms MP has been Member of Parliament for East Ham, formerly Newham North East, since 1994. He chairs the Work and Pensions Select Committee and is the Labour Party's Faith Envoy. He served in the New Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown under several portfolios. He served for three periods as Financial Secretary to the Treasury: 1999-2001; 2004-2005; and 2008-2010. As Chief Secretary to the Treasury, he attended Cabinet from 2006-2007. He served on the Official Opposition frontbench as Shadow Minister for Employment and subsequently served in the Shadow Cabinet as Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

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