Andrew Patrick considers the theology of housing policy
A VIOLENT WAR OF WORDS has broken out in the UK, over Government Planning Policy. As always in war, the first casualty is truth.
But Romans 13 reminds us that Governments only govern at God’s behest – and for His purposes. We must therefore bring God’s truth to bear as much on Planning Policy as we do on the Sudan, homosexuality, or the spiritual state of ECUSA.
Government statisticians calculate the need for 4.5m new homes in the next 25 years – mainly because of growth in the total adult population, but also because of increased migration from other parts of the EU, and divorce splitting single households into two. In response, John Prescott has told planners and developers to increase the proportion built on “brown field” (or “previously – developed”) land from 50% to 60%.
These figures are vehemently disputed. Some professionals believe we may need 5m, or even 5.5m, and that 60% is impossible. Others, such as CPRE (Council for the Preservation of Rural England) claim we shall need nothing like 4.5m, and 75% or more is readily achievable.
Interpreting the signs of the times (Matthew 16:3)
What drives this intense pressure on the Government to cut house building, and cram as much as possible into existing urban areas? There is the real need to drastically reduce emission of greenhouse gases, and the reasonable desire to prevent further formless suburban sprawl – but I suspect three other forces are at work.
The first is the self-interest of those (like me) who are comfortably housed in or next to the countryside, and want to keep it that way. This denies the Second Great Commandment, to love our neighbour as ourselves.
The second is the increasingly popular belief that the Earth is all we have, and it is up to us to save it. The third appears to be a growing belief in the superiority of wild birds and animals – or even trees – because they have never built anything, but live in harmony with the ecology. These beliefs worship Creation as an end in itself, and deny the Creator.
Love you neighbour as yourself
We cannot obey the Second Great Commandment in Matthew 22:39-40 if we prevent the provision of enough homes for people, or the achievement of decent living standards. If housing provision is restricted, it is those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder who will suffer.
If we clamp down on new “green field” developments, the affluent will still be able to compete financially for a house with a decent garden in or next to the countryside. The majority will be increasingly squeezed into high-density urban development, with no access to countryside or green space.
On the same basis, we cannot obey that Commandment if we insist that others live in urban areas – especially inner urban areas – if we are not prepared to live there ourselves. Nor can we obey by telling others they must live in smaller dwellings than we ourselves aspire to.
Inadequate housing, or the financial pressures that can arise from housing, often contribute towards marriage breakdown. Adequate housing at an affordable price is an essential contribution to maintaining family life.
Loving our neighbour means having planning policies which aim to ensure that essential contribution is provided. (It also means the fully adequate funding of social housing for those who cannot afford to buy.)
Loving our neighbour means we do not pigeon-hole people into categories – including housing categories – for God loves each of us on an individual basis. The pressure groups want new housing to be focused on small dwellings for single people, because the biggest percentage rise in households is expected to be in that category.
That may suit some singles. But one has only to think of single people who offer hospitality to missionaries on furlough, or host a house group or committee, to realise that not only must we provide the number of homes needed, but that these homes need to be of a range of types and sizes that will enable the occupants to fulfil the role God has given them in society.
Divorce and Abortion
Christians deeply regret divorce and single – parenthood because they are far from God’s ideal (not because they have a knock-on effect on the need for housing land). We have to accept with sadness that divorce is one reason why more dwellings are needed – but also to hope that the spiritual renewal and revival of which “New Directions” is a part will reduce the levels of divorce. If so, that will reduce the demand for new dwellings.
However, we must also hope that that same renewal will reduce the levels of abortion, currently running at about 200,000 (equivalent to the population of Southampton) every year. Thus changes in attitudes towards the morality of divorce and abortion may well balance each other out over time, so we need to plan for the full housing requirement currently projected. Our land as a Gift from God.
Just as “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word which proceeds from the mouth of God” (Deuteronomy 8:3), so also we do not live by meeting our practical needs alone, but by the mental and spiritual refreshment which proceeds from, amongst other sources, the scenery and wild life which God created.
In our God-given role as stewards of Creation we should thus conserve the best landscape and wild life habitats. As Psalm 8 and so many others reflect, scenery and wildlife speak to us of He who created them – for our benefit, and to His glory.
However, Deuteronomy 8 (7-9) also explains that God gave Israel the land for water, farming and mineral extraction. It reminds them at v.18 that it is He who gives the ability to create wealth from the Earth – and that this confirms His covenant. Isaiah 45:18 tells us that God did not create the Earth to be empty but formed it to be inhabited (by us).
Through Joshua 17 and 19, 2 Samuel 5, and 2 Chronicles 8-32, we therefore see godly Kings, such as David, Solomon, Uzziah, Jotham, and Hezekiah, felling the forest and building towns and villages. In 2 Chronicles 26, for example, we read that “Uzziah … did what was right in the eyes of the Lord … He … rebuilt towns …built towers in Jerusalem … and … also built towers in the dessert …” and installed water supply systems “… for he loved the soil”.
The picture God’s word paints for us is of men whose walk with God led them into a holistic and balanced approach to both development and conservation. They saw their land as a gift from God to meet all their needs – food, water, clothing, and shelter. I believe that is the model we should follow.
The land can thus be seen as given to us by God as a resource for all our aesthetic and practical needs, including housing. Part of that gift comprises attractive sites on which to build homes and create attractive communities, using the creativity which God has given us for the purpose.
But only if the heart is right
The Bible does not, of course, tell us that all building is for God’s purposes or according to His will. Isaiah 5:8 warns against those who add house to house and field to field until they monopolise the land. Habakkuk 2:12 warns those who build a city with bloodshed or establishes a town by crime. Micah 2:1-10 warns those who fraudulently drive families from their homes to pursue corrupt development schemes.
God may express this covenant by giving the ability to create wealth from the land, and the ability to build on it, but it is not His will when those gifts are used for selfish or corrupt gain. Any commercial development must therefore create wealth by using these gifts to meet peoples real housing needs, not misuse them by giving priority to profit.
Thus we should choose sites for new housing which can enhance the community – for example, by funding a country park, public transport, or community facilities – rather than necessarily those which will give the land owner or developer the biggest profit.
1. The decent housing of the people is one of the basic moral duties of the Nation.
We must therefore plan properly to meet the need fully, in terms of both the number of homes, and the types and sizes of homes that will enable the people to fulfil the roles God has given them in family and society, and we must finance social housing for those who cannot afford to buy.
2. Housing must be located where it is best for people to live.
God gave us the land to meet all our needs – including attractive sites to live on – so new houses should not be located in response to either the presentation lobby or commercial interests, but where the best living conditions can be achieved.
3. We need a vision of house building as the potential meeting point between God’s creation (of land and landscape) and the creativity which He has given man.
Not an ungodly evil to be hidden away beneath the power lines between the motorway and the sewage works, but a positive opportunity for good.
Andrew Patrick is a Chartered Town Planning in private consultancy on the South Coast, and is Convenor of the Planning Theory Group of the Association of Christians in Planning and Architecture.