Lime Legal

Into the breach

Published 10 March 2024

The church has always been willing to help people the state doesn’t reach. But that shouldn’t be used by government as an excuse to withdraw welfare support. David Walker, Bishop of Dudley, talks to Rachael Claye

The bishop of Dudley is a man with a mission. But as befits a cleric, it is the humble, small-scale and hands-on style of mission that appeals to David Walker, former and founding chair of Housing Justice and a leading activist in the Church of England on social housing and homelessness since the mid-1980s.

‘Over the years some of the things I’m happiest about are, for example, the rent guarantee schemes we set up back in the days when they were very rare,’ he says. ‘Young people could access the private rented sector even when they were on benefits – and we insisted landlords did repairs.’

It sounds modest enough, but it’s the type of project where the church can excel, says the bishop. ‘The church’s best contribution is often dealing with harder to reach groups. We provide a professional service but we are locally based in communities and we have a lot of volunteers who can work alongside paid employees. That’s where we add value.’

It was this ability to mobilise people and resources to develop local services rapidly that got the bishop involved in the first place. Now chair of a local housing association for the elderly, he started by setting up schemes in the 1980s and 1990s in Rotherham, whereby church congregants addressed blockages in the housing system and built on tenancy support.

In Maltby, meanwhile, they got together 10 young unemployed people in a self-build project. ‘Most of these young people had no qualifications and an impressive list of convictions,’ he says. ‘We got them to do something anybody would be proud of – they built their own homes from start to finish. And these are the people who are often discarded, seen as good for nothing.’

This type of local activism has a strong history within the church. Its great 19th century social housing reformer, Octavia Hill, set out to improve housing for London’s poorest residents by helping families in derelict properties to improve their living conditions, manage budgets and create outside play areas for children. A Christian, Hill had no confidence in government policy and believed that grassroots activity only, based around relationships with tenants, was the way to raise housing standards.

Roots revival

Hill’s achievements were recognised in 1884 when the Ecclesiastical Commissioners asked her to manage and reform their slum properties in South London, then notorious for poverty, alcohol abuse, petty crime and prostitution. But as a picture of grassroots activism it is remarkably similar to the one painted by the Rt Revd Walker more than 100 years later.

In his interview with ROOF, the bishop made the case that while there are limits to the church’s resources, it can get to areas where the cruder policy instruments of the state either fail to reach or don’t even try.

‘What we can’t do is provide accommodation for lots and lots of people,’ he says. ‘We haven’t the capacity to undertake major arms of the welfare state when the state is underfunding them… [But] it isn’t about volume. It’s about getting into the harder places and proving stuff can be done, making the case that challenges the state and wider housing community.’

He counts the church’s work with young offenders among its efforts to challenge notions of what can and cannot be achieved with those more difficult groups. The church’s prisons project puts volunteers and paid chaplains in place to help offenders access and sustain housing in order to make the transmission back to life outside. He quotes former Shelter boss Adam Sampson: ‘If you look at the factors stopping ex-offenders offending, having secure and safe housing has twice the impact on reoffending rates than any other factor.’

He also cites the Foyer projects, which bring a holistic approach to housing, training and help into employment. Then there are the many smaller housing associations and church-based groups that cater to people with special needs. The aim, he says, is always ‘to see the needs of the neediest aren’t neglected’ – and use the church’s resources of local insight and willing volunteers to raise the bar on what government and housing agencies can do. 

‘Churches are good at being close to the local community and creating partnerships to target needs and deliver services. Clearly what we don’t have is vast sums of money sloshing around waiting to be used. We have smaller amounts of money.’

The Church Urban Fund, for example, of which the bishop is a director, has a scheme to give smaller grants of up to £5,000 to church-based projects working in the field. The aim with these mustard seed grants, as they are called, is to allow rapid and relatively easy access to funding for volunteers who see a local need so they can get a project up and running quickly.

‘We can’t be a major provider but we can be the first provider,’ says the bishop. ‘We put in a small amount of money early so something can be started, then get the larger sources of money that are out there.’

Off the hook?

But there is more to it than showing what can be done. The arrival of the welfare state has changed much since the days of Octavia Hill, and the bishop is well aware of the difficulties that this presents. ‘We are always very careful about taking over the state’s responsibilities,’ he says. ‘If we aren’t careful, we are letting the state off the hook.’

He points to the condition of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers as being ‘some of the trickiest ones – where the state seems particularly unwilling to shoulder what we feel is its burden’.

Nonetheless, the church can play a special role here: ‘I have been highly impressed at the painstaking work behind the scenes with individuals having a rotten time with immigration services… Often we are dealing with people traumatised from places where the state is their enemy. Sometimes the voluntary sector is easier for them to trust.’

In Halesowen in Dudley, parishioners became concerned about the isolation suffered by near destitute asylum seekers who were dispersed to the area. The bishop asked the local parish to come up with a response. The result was a group set up to work with refugees and asylum seekers.

When talk last summer turned to the question of whether to cut benefits to another soft target, NEETs (government jargon for young people who are not in employment, education or training), the bishop had no difficulty drawing a line between church and state.

‘If you reduce benefits below the set level which is [supposedly] the minimum, you are actually saying they don’t have a right to live. If benefits were pitched at a generous level it might be more acceptable. Benefits for under 25s aren’t really enough for someone to live and sustain [themselves] on. As with asylum seekers, you are saying you don’t have a right to live. I don’t think we should be saying that to our children.’

The bishop’s concerns now have turned to the future. He fears that the coming general election will bring a new intake of MPs whose instincts towards deep spending cuts and social authoritarianism will drag their leadership with them. He wrote recently in the Guardian of his fear that the brunt of the pain on the path out of recession will be borne by the least well off, with ‘severe cuts to the eligibility for sickness-related welfare benefits; insufficient money to fund social housing; the closure of many public and voluntary sector initiatives that make a real positive difference in marginalised places’.

Withdrawal symptoms

We will soon know how far his fears are justified. But whatever the scale of retrenchments to come, there is a great danger that the church’s willingness to step into the breach will be used as an excuse so government can withdraw.

After all, while the state’s involvement in social housing has ranged in recent times from the welfare state to practically nothing, the church, as the bishop points out, ‘has been involved in housing and street homelessness probably for as long as there has been a church in this country’.

Alas, it seems unlikely the church will find itself with nothing to do but tidy the cassocks cupboard any time soon.