Catholic social teaching demands that we solve Britain’s housing crisis

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When reflecting on an important passage in Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (published on Christmas Day 2005), the problem of homelessness immediately comes to mind:

Love—caritas—will always prove necessary, even in the most just society. There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such. There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help. There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbour is indispensable. The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern. (28)

Talking to charities that dealt with homelessness at that time, they would generally have agreed that homelessness was caused by complex personal and family circumstances and that addressing the problem required personal attention and not just money. Even today, Shelter’s website explaining the causes of homelessness relates a similar narrative.

This situation has changed. The affordability of housing is now a significant cause of homelessness. Not only that, high housing costs increase in-work poverty, lead to the increased use of food banks and also to crisis moments when people move on to Universal Credit. Many working people have no financial resilience because such a large proportion of their take-home pay is taken up by rent or mortgage payments.

Many proposed solutions to this problem, such as rent control or the building of more social housing, are irrelevant or would lead to still greater problems. High housing costs are caused by the lack of housebuilding resulting from restrictions on development which have (to use a phrase of Pope Francis) created an ‘economy of exclusion’: all but the well-off are excluded from housing markets.

Restrictions on building have led to there being more land used for golf courses in Surrey than for houses. In the UK, annual new dwelling starts have ranged from a highest level of 331,000 in 1970 to a low of 119,000 in 2008, with a strong secular decline – that is later peaks generally being lower than earlier peaks. In Germany, new housing starts have ranged from 810,000 to 179,000 in the same period. The UK is unique in the Western world in terms of the way the government blocks housebuilding.

As a result, according to a Countrywide survey, the average 20-29 year old will spend about half their post-tax income on rent for a one-bedroomed property. The effect of high house prices on the disposable incomes of the poor is especially dramatic. If, between 1965 and 2009, housing costs had grown at the same rate as incomes (instead of at a much higher rate) people in the bottom tenth of the income distribution would be 25 per cent better off.

If there are concerns about the environment from more housebuilding, these can be assuaged. Only about 11 per cent of the country is ‘built’ on and at least half of that is actually gardens and parks. New houses are energy efficient. Furthermore, the bio-diversity in gardens is hugely greater than that on farmland. A major study conducted by Dr. Ken Williams of Sheffield University found that a typical garden contains thousands of worms, invertebrates, spiders, and around 250 different varieties of plants.

Catholic social teaching has some relevance in thinking about this problem. The teaching argues consistently for human dignity and the common good to be promoted: all must have food, clothing, shelter and basic education and healthcare. These things are not generally provided directly by the government, but the government is responsible for creating certain conditions to promote the common good. However, in the case of housing, the UK government places impediments to working people being able to have a decent living by restricting housebuilding. In addition, this policy exacerbates income and wealth inequality, something about which Pope Francis often expresses concern. It is also worth noting that the restrictions on house building generally arise from pressures on politicians that come through the democratic process, normally in affluent areas. Self-interest is not a legitimate motivation for voting or for other activity within the political system (see, for example, The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church 565-574).

Theresa May, blames housebuilding companies for the shortage of houses for sitting on undeveloped land with planning permission. Politicians often blame somebody else when their policies lead to social catastrophe. Developers sitting on land is a small problem in the great scheme of things. Nevertheless, Catholic social teaching does tell us that land should be used for a social purpose. As such, I believe that developers should pay taxes (Council Tax or business rates) as soon as planning permission is given on a piece of land. Developers should not be rewarded for land standing idle.

The housing crisis is one of the great socio-economic crises of our time. The tragedy is that it is entirely self-inflicted.