Housing crisis means Church of England ‘can’t back out of politics’

Chair of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Housing Commission says Church should challenge staying out of politics.

High-rise blocks. Glasgow housing scheme, in cloudy dusk sky. Inner city/urban deprivation.

The Church of England can’t back away from “politics” in the face of a housing crisis, the head of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Housing Commission has said.

In an interview with the Church Times, commission chairman Charlie Arbuthnot said that, while the Commission would explore government policy, it was “absolutely crucial that we look at ourselves”.

There was, said Arbuthnot, a need to challenge the idea that the Church should stay out of politics, to ask why it was not more present at local planning meetings, and to challenge “Nimbyism” within the Church.

As part of its on-going work, the Commission is assessing what the Church can invest on social housing.

Arbuthnot recognised local churches doing “amazing” work on housing, that could be replicated, and he was “very, very confident that there is going to be change on the ground”.

A financial adviser to housing associations, Arbuthnot identified the challenge for diocesan funds and the Church Commissioners as: “Can we marry the requirement to deliver an excellent return with a desire to do this in an incredibly godly way, or is there an inherent conflict?’”

Arbuthnot said he “wholly understood” those who asked why the Church did not simply give all its money away – but it was not that simple when a balance must be struck between stewardship and giving.

There was, said Arbuthnot, a “great rapport” between the Commissioners and the Commission, he said.

Referencing his previous work persuading institutional investors to put money into social-housing bonds, Arbuthnot said the most effective approach was “not to appeal to their better nature but to their financial nature — to show that, if we structure them well, these are incredibly safe investments”.

The “key stream” was theological, he said: “We need as a Church to have a distinctly Christian biblical voice into this crisis.”

The theological work of the Commission is being led by the Bishop of Kensington, Dr Graham Tomlin, who has dealt directly with the impact of Grenfell and spoke at Bristol Housing Festival of housing as a “universal human need” and “something that matters to God and matters to his Church”.

Dr Tomlin is on record as saying: “Many feel our drastically reduced social housing stock has become, in the words of one resident, a ‘dumping ground of the most vulnerable in our society’.

“It comes so low down on our list of priorities, that the people who live in it, including many of the most vulnerable, feel abandoned. If a society can be judged on how it treats it poorest and most defenceless people, we are not doing well.

“People feel fobbed off, uncared for, and that the very people who are responsible for their housing don’t seem to care enough to pick up the phone or arrange repairs.

“If we continue to neglect social housing in this way, there is no guarantee Grenfell won’t happen again somewhere else, sometime soon.

“If it does, we will have no excuses left.”