Housing: churches will follow ‘example of Jesus’, says Archbishop
Friday 20th September 2013
Picture: National Housing Federation
In a keynote speech to the National Housing Federation in Birmingham this morning, the Archbishop called for churches and housing associations to explore ways in which they could work together to tackle the “poverty and deprivation” in some parts of the country.
He said: “The Church’s action is driven by the Christian experience of being overwhelmed by the love of God, given without condition through Jesus Christ. . . And Jesus made a point of going wherever there were people in need – he healed people from his own community and outside it, he healed the grateful and the ungrateful, and he healed the downright hostile. He did whatever he could wherever there was need and he didn’t set conditions. That’s the example that we’re trying to follow.”
The Archbishop acknowledged that there was “some anxiety in the social housing sector about whether it is safe for housing associations to work with religious groups”.
But he wanted to reassure them that “not only is it legal but it is very safe – in fact, it is a great way forward”. Churches, he said, were “faith-blind” when it came to serving the community: “not setting aside our own faith, but blind to the faith positions of those they seek, not to do things to, but to share life with and enable and empower”.
Archbishop Justin encouraged housing associations to “get to know your local bishop or your local church. . . Find out what each other’s concerns are, what gifts you each bring to the place where you are, and then let us imagine what we may do together.”
He also challenged churches “to think about what opportunities there might be to connect with housing associations and be a part of a great movement that can renew our commitment to changing the apparent decline of many areas”.
The task was all the more urgent, he said, because, outside of the south-east, "years of dedicated and thoughtful work on regeneration are not producing the effects we want”.
Listen to the speech (starts at around 3:30)
Archbishop Justin's speech at the National Housing Federation Conference at the ICC in Birmingham, Friday 20th September 2013
It’s very kind of the NHF to extend the invitation to be here. I want to start by saying how grateful I am to the housing association movement over the years for what I’ve learnt from them, and my theme is about our common responsibility, and the shift in responsibility, that is taking place in the way we structure our society.
Housing Associations have been at the forefront of facing the responsibility of deprivation, of homelessness, of urban regeneration and rural regeneration since the 1930s. For many years we have been in times where people say ‘they must do something...'.
My first experience of housing associations was shortly after I was ordained. I was a curate in Nuneaton and I came across Friendship Care & Housing in the parish, and ended up on their board. I went back and visited them yesterday evening, and was reminded of the extraordinary way - for three-quarters of a century and more - the housing association movement has been the cornerstone of hope for flourishing communities.
And yet, cornerstones cannot be the whole building. Philip Blond on this stage two years ago talked about the need for partnerships and I want to pursue that theme.
The work you do through your Housing Associations provides security and stability for your tenants, and that work makes possible the growth of strong and supportive communities. No one else can do it, and the strength, flexibility and development of Housing Associations is the envy of most parts of the voluntary sector.
Basically you develop and change quicker than anyone else. You have been doing your work for decades, you go on doing your work, and you seem to be able to adapt to new environments at a speed that the rest of us can only envy.
But we are in the middle of massive changes that in almost every area affects our lives and the way in which we work in our societies. The changes are so huge that I want to suggest that no single sector can face them. To quote Benjamin Franklin, “If we do not hang together we will most assuredly hang separately.”
We all know that our economic situation is completely different to that of 10 years ago. But it is worth remembering how different. Although, thankfully, the economy seems to be recovering, we are still well below 2007 levels. Incomes for average households are back at 2003 levels and a forecast last week suggested they may not stabilise until in real terms until living standards for average households are at the levels of the late 1990s.
Hopefully that is wrong, but even if it is 2003, it’s still tough.
That’s on the incomes side. On the expenditure side, increases in fuel costs squeeze incomes ever more. Your ability to build smaller units, or to replace larger ones, is squeezed by changes in the availability of funding - especially state funding.
The benefits system is going through a massive change, especially as it will affect housing.
We all know that the introduction of Universal Credit paid direct is a massive change in the risk profile of housing associations. The principle of the changes have been carefully thought through over much time, and I’m not making a party political point, but the realities of delivery are hugely challenging.
And again that’s not a criticism. All of you know better than I do the difficulties of delivering services in complex and large organisations which are yet, for all their size, many times smaller than government.
When a series of other things are combined, notably reductions in benefit to take account of what is seen as excess house space - the so-called bedroom tax - higher costs for energy, and for many the fact that with CPAs short term lenders can take money direct from an account within hours of it coming in; suddenly the problem and possibility of growing and large-scale arrears becomes very serious, and a sense, more seriously, of instability for people in already tough places becomes more and more real.
It is a change of climate for Housing Associations which requires rapid adaption, or extinction is the alternative.
Underlying these individual shifts are longer term realities which create a potentially even more unfavourable context.
Outside the south-east and that extraordinarily flourishing economy in much of London - not all of it - years of dedicated and thoughtful work on regeneration are not producing the effects we want.
We were in Liverpool, I was working at the Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool at the time that Liverpool 1 opened. Liverpool 1 was seen as the donut theory of economic regeneration – you inject jam in the middle and it permeates through to the edges.
And yet five years after, over a billion pounds was put in to one of the best shopping centres in Europe – and Liverpool was one of the finest and most enjoyable places we’ve lived – five years after that you can still walk the 12 or 15 minutes up in to Toxteth and see very very little impact.
Regneration is not as simple as shoving excellent, well-designed, brilliantly-run, good facilities into the centre of an urban area and hoping something happens elsewhere.
Parts of the country seem stuck in endless poverty and deprivation, now running for generations, despite the quality and value of the people who work and live there.
Most of all it seems to me that the biggest problems we face are less to do with policy, because there is probably not a magic solution, and more to do with delivery.
The proportion of families using food banks who have at least one person earning, but where for example benefit has not been paid, or other problems have struck, is a demonstration of that. As someone said to us a few years ago when I was in a parish and we were relying heavily on benefit, there just seem to be months where the month is a bit longer than the money.
Food banks are sadly necessary as much for those in work as out of it, and by the way - as you know better than I do - are not invariably the result of fecklessness, laziness or just sheer idleness; and demonising those who use them is not an approach that we should take.
The Joseph Rowntree report published yesterday on the working poor addresses this question. The Archbishop of York’s work on living wage and the impact it has springs from the church's awareness of the issue of working poverty.
So if you combine higher costs, lower incomes in real terms (inflation is higher for the poor), debt, issues of policy delivery, greater risks to cash flow for housing associations and communities that falsely appear to be locked into decline, the challenge to human flourishing and to resilient communities is obvious.
There is a need to find new ways of enabling resilience, and of creating regeneration that accepts the realities of a dramatic shift in who is responsible for what. That would be us then.
If the power of the state is limited, whether it is by choice or necessity - although it remains by far the most important force in regeneration both at a micro and a macro level, and if any case experience has demonstrated limitations of the state, especially when highly centralised - then a new approach must be found.
Responsibility falls on a lot of organisations, and our collective response in the third sector, but especially I want to suggest churches and housing associations, will be infinitely greater put together than our individual efforts added up, enormous as they are in your case.
The building blocks are already there, and in many places happening and have been for many years. The motive power for regeneration must not be desperation or fear but love, which is the source of activity of the church.
Over the centuries, and especially in the last 100 years, the churches have been central in many movements, including yours, and continue to be.
It is not to make money, I can assure you of that, as can my bank manager. Nor is it for power. The Church is not a powerful organisation in the sense of being able to deliver change by itself.
It is based on a view if human beings, regardless of faith, as being of infinite dignity and value whatever their economic or social potential. And that view, when it’s part of our society and if we hold on to it, is one that marks a civilised society.
My predecessor Archbishop William Temple set that dignity as the basis of society’s very existence. It is because each one of us has that essential dignity that we have solidarity with one another; our shared human experience is the basis of our relationships and our communities.
The Church’s action is driven by the Christian experience of being overwhelmed by the love of God, given without condition through Jesus Christ, and known in daily life.
Christians are people whose lives are shaped by Jesus Christ, shaped by who we believe he was and is, and shaped by what he did. And Jesus made a point of going wherever there were people in need – he healed people from his own community and outside it, he healed the grateful and the ungrateful, and he healed the downright hostile.
He did whatever he could wherever there was need, and he didn’t set conditions. That’s the example that we’re trying to follow. Churches at their best in areas of deprivation are faith-blind: not setting aside our own faith, but blind to the faith positions of those they seek not to do things to, but to share life with and enable and empower.
Housing associations, springing from a common philosophical heritage, are already doing that - and have been, like us, for many years. And that means that all of us are working to care for those in need as best we can without setting conditions, without favouritism and without discrimination.
Of course there are historical links between the housing association movement and the churches, and other faith groups as well.
Those who have been in the industry a while will remember the origins of some of the larger associations in the country, such as Paddington Churches (now Genesis) and English Churches HA (now part of Riverside).
Church origins are still visible in the names of some associations, and I know that there are superb local connections across the country which are delivering significant change. The characteristic of that co-operation was being local, so that needs were met by those who lived among them and delivered by those most skilled at doing so.
And different people bring different skills. The housing associations are one of those rare movements that seem to be able to multi-task very effectively, working on a vast range of social issues, but no one has a monopoly of wisdom.
Like you, we are in every community (we being the churches of all denominations). The majority of food banks are church-run. Churches lead on debt counselling, have buildings in every community, both schools and centres for worship and community life. They provide cohesion and demonstrate love and commitment.
I know that there is some anxiety in the social housing sector about whether it is safe for housing associations to work with religious groups, but I hope what I have said encourages you to see that not only is it legal but it is very safe – in fact, it is a great way forward.
I know from my own experience of working with a housing association – and all I learned from them, much more than I gave – that you are organisations driven by your values, and I hope I have been able to give you a sense of where Christian values connect with and are part of our common heritage.
And before you think to yourselves, ‘well, he would say that, wouldn’t he’, let me say that I also want to challenge the Church to think about what opportunities there might be to connect with housing associations and be a part of a great movement that can renew our commitment to changing the apparent decline of many areas.
Some of you may remember the Policy Exchange report that came out in 2008 that reported on a number of northern and coastal cities and towns. Its conclusion was that there was no hope of change at all; they were, in the words of Private Fraser, doomed. It included Liverpool.
This was the summer of 2008…about eight weeks before Lehman Brothers and the British banking system had a few inconveniences.
The suggestion was that since we were all ‘doomed’ the answer was to put them into decline mode (actually there was a similar policy in the 80s), and all those with any get-up-and-go should get up and go to places like Oxford and Cambridge. . . And the report said, 'work in financial services, the industry of the future'. It was the industry of the future for eight weeks.
Underlying that was a sense of economic determinism that in fact the areas of our country which are struggling and have deprivation, where housing associations are the people who are doing so much, those areas have no future. We can challenge that ridiculous deterministic belief and say it is possible to reinvent regeneration, to find ways that we have not yet seen. But it is going to be very very difficult. There are examples of this happening already – it can be done.
There are some excellent examples of this happening already, so it can be done.
There are housing associations that are an integral part of the social mission with the local church: Southwark & London Diocesan Housing Association manages more than 250 properties across their local area and Mitre Housing Association in the Diocese of Carlisle works with Eden Housing Association, focusing on rural communities.
There are other projects with great imagination through projects like My Home Finance; but they are only the tip of the iceberg.
It is enormously valuable to be linked to the NHF. They give us very good briefings and we value the contact enormously. But let me encourage you to begin the process of developing these relationships further. Get to know your local bishop or your local church. You may be surprised to find that generally speaking they are signed up members of the human race. Find out what each other’s concerns are, what gifts you each bring to the place where you are, and then let us imagine what we may do together.
In some places you’ll find churches are already involved in providing services around debt advice; you’ll find them capable of running IT support and help; you’ll find they have volunteers of the kind of people you need and with the motivation you require.
How do we do it? Everything starts locally, but we need to have a great vision, and there are no easy answers. I do know that we have the space and the challenge, because government, through necessity or choice, has withdrawn or is forced to withdraw from some areas, to renew the passion for community regeneration. To challenge the determinism which says communities are just in endless decline. To renew community resilience that should be our response to poverty and need and has been that of the churches at their best.
We have the means to challenge that path.
In the 1930s the resources were found in far bleaker times to start a movement that changed our cities, as the housing associations went on to do or be part of.
It is a gigantic task of a generation at least, but within our ranks is the capacity, if we work together, work locally and build great partnerships and coalitions – not just housing associations and churches – but reaching out with a clear view of changing the environment and context in which we live, taking responsibility and leading with vision.
It needs more than just a few of us, but growing our common worship and extending all our links in communities, links that exist already, gives reason not for optimism but for hope.
Thank you very much.