Cuts risk reversing 5-year gains in battle against homelessness, says bishop

By staff writers
October 27, 2010

Nearly half a million rural households may be left without housing in the next quarter of a century, a bishop will warn next week

The 50 per cent cut in capital investment for affordable homes, announced in last week’s comprehensive spending review, also risks a reversal in the hard-won five year fall in homelessness, the Rt Rev Dr Alan Smith, Bishop of St Albans, will tell leading thinkers on rural economies, planning, policy and mission in rural communities.

The conference Faith and the Future of the Countryside – 2010 will explore the sustainability of rural communities and their churches and mark 20 years since the publication of Faith in the Countryside, the seminal report of the Archbishop’s Commission on Rural Areas, chaired by Lord Prior.

Four conference themes of rural communities, economy, environment and rural church reflect the breadth of issues covered in the original report.

Twenty years ago, Faith in the Countryside recommended that receipts from the sale of council houses should be kept by local authorities to fund the building of new rented housing. The announcement in the CSR that councils will be able to keep their income from rented property and use it to maintain homes for current and future tenants is a step in the right direction in retaining a good quality stock of housing for those who need it, he will say.

But the 50 per cent cut in the capital investment for the building of new affordable homes, the Bishop will say, could have a serious impact on the 474,970 households in rural England on local authority waiting lists [2008 figures from Commission for Rural Communities]. At the proposed new rate of building of an average of 37,500 new affordable homes in England (150,000 over the next five years), to cover both rural and urban areas, rural households are unlikely to be housed in the next quarter of a century.

“Homelessness fell in the five years to 2009. Unless we can increase the building of new affordable housing where it is needed most, we risk the figures rising again,” Bishop Alan will say.

The requirement for local referenda to support new developments such as affordable housing has the potential to divide many communities. A requirement for a 90 per cent approval of a proposal in a local vote is unlikely even in the most engaged and democratically active communities and in some places this unjust requirement will prevent any new building of any kind.

“We urgently need a national debate about this. It could be a charter for NIMBYs and even BANANAs (build absolutely nothing anywhere never again) and we cannot have a countryside that is prevented from being economically competitive and socially inclusive,” Bishop Alan will warn.

“Capping housing benefit could make it impossible for many lower paid people to live in expensive rural areas. Quality of life will be affected by longer commuting times and costs. Parts of the countryside may become monochrome middle-class areas surrounded by concentrations of people on low income, in towns and urban fringe estates. This could be disastrous for many rural communities with young families and young people permanently forced out of their familiar home areas or the places where they work. It could militate against the sort of mixed communities which are the best bet for Big Society-style mutuality and self-help.”

The change in rules on new tenancies for those needing council housing means that, with limited tenure and significantly higher rents, families will have lost their long term security and will be in danger of loosing their social networks and contacts if forced to move the bishop will suggest. This would, at a stroke, he will say, remove from vulnerable communities exactly those longer-standing residents who are likely to be the focus of Big Society initiatives.

The conference takes place,from November 3-5 in Swanwick, Derbyshire


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