Following on from his work on how Reformation-era Geneva can help us to re-imagine social welfare, Jonathan Tame reflects on the opportunities presented by the UK housing crisis to strengthen welfare and prevent social isolation.
When the medieval city of Geneva faced a housing crisis, caused by the influx of fellow Protestants who were being persecuted in France, there was no more land in the walled city to build houses on. So in the 1550s many took the radical and sacrificial step of adding an extra floor on top of their houses, in order to create room for another family.
Almost 500 years later and we have a housing crisis in Britain today. Our own crisis has complex causes, and different policy options are being debated, but building more houses remains a core part of any solution. Yet many existing residents oppose the expansion of housing near them – ‘not in my back yard’.
In the midst of this debate, we must remember that it’s not just the number of new homes that is important, but the type also. It is important not to just build homes for the first time buyers who are currently priced out of the market, because the cost of housing is not the only problem that needs to be tackled. Housing and welfare are intertwined.
Our recent Cambridge Paper looks at the long term sustainability crisis of providing social welfare in Britain. Centralised welfare services are being funded partly through government borrowing, but over the coming decades the ageing population will fuel demand for medical and social care and pensions, while the tax base is likely to decline with the relative size of the working population. Simply borrowing more cannot solve the problems, so what else can be done?
Like housing, social welfare provision is not just a financial problem; there are social and relational aspects to consider too. The number of people living alone is increasing, and there is an ‘epidemic of loneliness’ that is causing mental health problems. As our ‘Reimagining social welfare’ paper argues, there is a need to strengthen extended families, and housing can play a key role in this.
Tackling the issue of housing and welfare
So is there a way to tackle both these problems together – the availability and affordability of housing, and the isolation and loneliness of so many people? I suggest two ways this could happen.
Firstly, by building more multiple-dwelling houses. Instead of adding an extension to serve as a ‘granny flat’ for an elderly parent, more houses could be built with all the facilities for two separate living areas from the outset, on different floors. The smaller unit could at first be used by an adult child and their partner who want to set up home as a couple but cannot afford to. Years later, the tables would turn and the elderly parents could live in the smaller unit, while one of their children raises their own family in the larger part of the house. Just as new housing developments will only be given planning permission if they include a certain percentage of affordable homes, a policy to build a small proportion of multiple dwelling homes could also be adopted.
Secondly, research has shown the numerous benefits of social interaction between old people and children. Both generations would benefit from a policy to build retirement homes close to primary schools; the mental and physical health of older people would improve with regular interaction with children, and some pressure on primary schools could be reduced if some older folks would volunteer to read regularly to children in the school.
The biblical social vision encourages us to think in terms of integrated, holistic responses to social issues, and although this is no quick fix solution, it’s worth pursuing it as one element of a long term strategy for families and communities to flourish.