From 1993 until 2007 I served as a board member of what was one of the early stock transfer housing associations, based in the West Midlands. On transfer we were forced to split the local authority housing stock into two associations, which left us with 2,750 properties – many thought at the time, almost too small to be viable. Now 23 years later and following two mergers, the organization is responsible for 15,000 properties across a much wider area, and apart from the Chief Executive, there are very few people still involved from those early days. One of the concerns in those distant times was that only the largest housing associations would be allowed to be developers of new housing, and would instead simply be managers of existing stock, and thus vulnerable to take-overs by larger groupings.
I now serve as a Director of a diocesan multi-academy trust (MAT), partly because of my local involvement with two voluntary church aided primary schools, but largely because of my previous experience with the housing association world, and the challenges of setting up local authority replacement organizations from scratch. Although a serious merger process has yet to begin, one can foresee the time when the various MATs are also too small to be viable, and the way ahead will be the growth of ever larger units. One danger of that is of becoming an ever more distant centralised group who lose the personal knowledge of, and relationships with, the individual schools. There are many church schools now wanting to join, more than can quickly be absorbed into the MAT, but who need to be part of the “church family” now that government policy is that all schools must be become academies or belong to academy chains.
These are the worlds of housing and education in 2016, 75 years after the Malvern conference associated with Archbishop William Temple, and which helped to lay the foundations for the Beveridge report of 1942 and thus the early days of the Welfare State. So where are we now, and how does the current context relate to the original ideals and aspirations of its founders?
With those questions in mind, the University of Worcester in conjunction with the Foundation, has planned a conference looking at social justice, and examining the areas of concern identified by the original legislation: education, health, housing, welfare policy, in addition to other areas that have emerged since such as gender and the environment. It is time to take stock and examine how faith engagement might evaluate what has happened in the intervening years and what the future now holds.
It is worth revisiting the words of Christianity and Social Order, Temple’s major contribution to the debates:
Each child should find itself a member of a family housed with decency and dignity, so that it may grow up as a member of that basic community in a happy fellowship unspoilt by underfeeding or overcrowding, by dirty or drab surroundings or by mechanical monotony of environment. Every child should have the opportunity of an education till years of maturity, so planned as to allow for his peculiar aptitudes and make possible their full development.
This paragraph closes with the proposal that all of this should be inspired by faith in God and find its focus in worship. How times have changed!
One obvious difference is that the Church of England no longer plays such a significant role in the formation of public policy, much as it would like to think otherwise, and is seen more as another provider of voluntary labour to plug the gaps left by the withdrawal of government funding. Another is what now appears to be the political consensus over limiting the role of the state in welfare and education provision; much of what remains of left wing UK politics would like to think it represents a viable alternative. The vision and models of the welfare state from the 1940s appear to be disintegrating before our eyes, to be replaced by patchy and financially driven private provision that is more concerned with generating profits for its funders than with levels of service for its “customers”. The only resemblance between the current context and the 1940s is that of rationing, but in this case a situation in which only the privileged few will be guaranteed access to the best of education, health and housing. One might predict that such an approach would be a seed bed for a resurgence of socialism, but there are no real signs of that.
The explanation for this could be that offered by Ulrich Beck when he argued that the process now underway is a turn away from the collective and towards the individual, where it is lone agents who are deemed to be responsible for their own welfare rather than either government or society as a whole. So one might suggest that the whole concept of “social justice” no longer carries any credibility. In fact, in the words of Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, the welfare state model has itself contributed to its own demise:
The legal norms of the welfare state make individuals (not groups) the recipients of benefits, thereby enforcing the rule that people should organize more and more of their own lives… Today even God himself has to be chosen. And the ubiquitous rule is that, in order to survive the the rat race, one has to become active, inventive and resourceful, to develop ideas of one’s own, to be faster, nimbler and more creative.
The argument as expressed here is that one has to construct a “life of one’s own in a runaway world”. In this context, faith becomes just another resource in this task, either that, or a source of practical support when other resources are no longer adequate or available. The irony of course is that one large and impersonal organization – a local authority – is simply being replaced by another. But this time one essentially privatized and no longer democratically accountable, so “the individual” is even more vulnerable than before. In that context, how can faith groups represent and embody a different form of collective?
Perhaps it is from the more recent struggles for justice through concerns for gender and environmental issues that these different forms will yet emerge. For instance, instead of the categorizations of the individual, civil society, the corporate and then the state, what we learn from environmental thought is that we must study assemblages made up of the human and the non-human, the latter including also the technological. It is within specific assemblages that relationships form and function. When it comes to matters of welfare concern we need to attend to the appropriate assemblages of care crossing the old boundaries of individual, voluntary, civil society, and state, and to how those are to be resourced and funded. In this way the models of the collective more consistent with faith commitments can once again be brought into the equation.
John Reader is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation.
Social justice: building a fairer, more equal society will be held at the University of Worcester from Thursday 23rd June – Saturday 25th June.
Faith, Progressive Localism & the Hol(e)y Welfare Safety Network by Greg Smith is available to download now.
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