Parliament Parliament

Bishop Guli’s speech in the House of Lords King’s Speech debate on Energy, the Environment and Housing

18 July 2024

The Bishop of Chelmsford and Church of England lead Bishop for Housing, the Rt Rev Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani's speech in the House of Lords King's Speech debate on Energy, the Environment and Housing.

My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest in my capacity as the C of E’s Lead Bishop for Housing and can I say that along with other noble Lords I’m looking forward to hearing the maiden speech of the noble Lord Fuller.

It is undeniable that the UK is in the midst of a housing crisis. It’s a crisis with deep roots: too often, housing has been viewed as financial asset rather than a fundamental human need. I’m grateful for the noble Lord Hunt’s comments and commitments in his opening speech. The housing crisis has been escalating for decades, and we shouldn’t underestimate just how long it will take to fix.

I therefore cannot overstate the need for long-term thinking in tackling the housing crisis. A point well made by the noble Baroness Warwick. A clear, long-term vision and a carefully thought-through strategy to provide decent, affordable homes for all can deliver three major goals of economic growth, social justice, and environmental stewardship. That’s why, along with my noble friend the Bishop of St. Albans, I’m pleased to support Homes for All, which is a vision for a long-term housing strategy supported by churches, charities, thinktanks and others. I commend it to all noble Lords.

Here's just one example of the pitfalls of a failure to think strategically. Between 2021 and 2026 the previous government allocated £11.5 billion to the Affordable Homes Programme to subsidise the building of new affordable homes. But in the same period, the New Economics Foundation estimates that the Government is set to subsidise private landlords by more than £70 billion through Housing Benefit and the housing element of Universal Credit. We’ve clearly got the balance wrong here: we should be using more of that funding to build up our stock of social homes and locking in the affordability for good, rather than subsidising private landlords month in, month out. Otherwise, the Housing Benefit bill will continue to rise without giving anyone in housing need the security they deserve. I endorse the National Housing Federation’s call to double the Affordable Homes Programme budget and build 90,000 new social homes a year, which they estimate will add £51 billion to the economy. 

But while it’s true that we need to think long-term to fix our broken housing system, people at the sharp end of this crisis need change now. Rough sleeping has risen by 27% in the last year, and 142,000 children are currently housed in temporary accommodation – although, as we know, families can spend months or even years in unsuitable, so called temporary, accommodation while they languish on the social housing waiting list, which currently stands at over one million. We proved that it was possible to make significant progress in tackling rough sleeping during the pandemic, when we moved with urgency. I would appreciate more clarity from the noble Baroness, the Minister, about the Government’s ambition for ending rough sleeping.

Even for those who are housed, this can often be in insecure, unaffordable and poor-quality homes. One in five private renters now pays at least half of their income on rent. They can’t wait decades for the housing market to provide more decent, affordable homes. We need both long-term planning and immediate action for those in acute housing need. I urge the Government also to pay particular attention to people who spend their lives in the service of others – such as ministers of religion (but there are others too) – and to ensure that policymaking doesn’t inadvertently make it more difficult to provide housing for them in retirement.   

I’m pleased that the Government has proposed a new Renters’ Rights Bill. It must offer renters and tenants a fair deal; extend the Decent Homes Standard to the private rented sector; prevent discrimination against families with children and people in receipt of benefits; and abolish no-fault evictions to give tenants the security they need. On this latter point, the details must be worked through carefully so that the Bill applies fairly to charities among a range of housing providers.

It might seem like an obvious point, but the primary duty of our housing system should be to provide quality homes for all. I welcome the Government’s plans to reform and better resource the planning system, and its ambition to build 1.5 million new homes during this parliament. More housing means more opportunity, something which the Church has recognised as we seek to use more of our own land for affordable housing.

But it’s not just about the volume of houses we build. We must also think about quality and affordability, as well as resilience to climate shocks. Will these new homes be, in the words of Coming Home, the report of the Archbishops’ Commission on Housing, Church and Community, ‘safe, stable, sociable, sustainable and satisfying’?

These five values speak to our profound need for community as we live with, and among, one another. New housing developments must be built with the social and physical infrastructure that supports people to thrive. The Church stands ready to help with this mission. While developers and local planners can focus on building houses, community groups, charities and faith groups are well placed to build the social support and relational connections which give these new communities a soul. 

Housing isn’t just bricks and mortar. Our housing system shouldn’t primarily be an opportunity to amass assets and wealth. It’s about people’s homes, people’s lives – where they get a good night’s sleep or finally relax on the couch after a long day at work; where they prepare food and eat with family and friends; where they should feel safe and secure. Housing policy must, first and foremost, serve the needs of the people. As the Church of England’s lead bishop for Housing, I look forward to working with the noble Baroness, the Minister, in the coming years to see this vision become a reality.