Ask teachers what they think of Michael Gove and I suspect that most will reply with derision. Ask doctors and nurses what they think of Andrew Lansley and I would imagine that, similarly, most will spit with rage. Ask housing professionals what they think of Grant Shapps and you certainly get an equally dismissive response from the vast majority.
Does the lack of professional support for the Tory policies being pursued by Tory Ministers in these crucial public services mean that these sectors are hopelessly leftist, resistant to change, and are just keen to protect their status, or is the Government’s unpopularity with them proof that the Tories still are the ‘nasty’ party and are as contemptuous of public services as ever? Or is this tension simply what always exists between public sector industries and the politicians that seek to govern/meddle with them, be they Labour or Conservative (or Liberal Democrat)?
I suspect that, on one level, it’s a mixture of all three. However, as someone who works in housing I have to say that the level in which Grant Shapps, the Housing Minister, is held couldn’t be lower. In fact, the only reason that most housing professionals can give to keep him in his job is because someone even worse might replace him – hardly a ringing endorsement.
To say that he is out of his depth is to suggest that there is a depth at which he would be competent, which would not be fair to shallow ends. To be sure, he seems like a nice person, and comes across as one of the few Tories one could go for a drink with without feeling a little dirty afterwards, but at a time of a national housing crisis, we need more than this from our Housing Minister.
So let’s move on from the ad hominem stuff and look at the charge sheet.
The simplest thing one might demand from a Housing Minister would be that more homes are built. On this crude measure Shapps has failed miserably. Although the last Government’s record on housing was generally dire, in its last 18 months it did pump billions into building more social homes, most of which have now been built, and which sustained a little fillip to the ‘housing completions’ graph in 2010-11. However, the last two years have seen the lowest numbers of competed homes since 1946. If this policy were a tweet it would have to be hashtagged #epicfail.
Grant Shapps would no doubt point to his new ‘Affordable Rent’ product as proof of delivery. Putting aside its Orwellian name, it may well deliver the promised 170,000 homes by 2015, although this is by no means certain. And as an intermediate housing product in a time of austerity, it’s not a bad wheeze. But, because it’s based on housing associations raiding reserves and leveraging assets, it’s not a sustainable solution. It also won’t house those most in need in southern England(where the crisis is most acute) as the new rents are, at between 65%-80% of market rents, too high for many low-earners to afford, and that’s before benefit caps kick in. Already some central London boroughs have seen families on waiting lists refuse offers of ‘Affordable Rent’ flats as they can’t afford them. This policy is leaving behind those most in need.
He has written in the Guardian that he wouldn’t support a spending programme for local government that would ‘in any way increase homelessness and rough sleeping’, and from this we might assume that he does not think his other policies would do so, such is his stated commitment. A pity then that homelessness acceptances by local authorities went up by 27% in London in 2011, and 14% in the country generally. A further pity that DCLG figures show that, after seven years of successive quarterly falls in the number of people in temporary accommodation (i.e. bed and breakfasts), the figure started rising in December 2011. Can he blame this on Labour? Hardly – the falls continued throughout the 2008-2010 recession, and only picked up a year after Grant Shapps became Minister.
He has done no better on overcrowded homes. In the past five years the number of UK households with three or more generations living in them has increased by 7%, reaching levels not seen since Victorian times. As benefit caps bite, and as young people either can’t afford to buy or need to save for years to get a 25% deposit, we can expect more people to live at home for longer. Nationally, home ownership is falling from its 70% peak, and is even at 25% in one west London borough. We can expect this to carry on going down for the foreseeable future.
So, Grant is presiding over falling housebuilding, rising homelessness, an abandoning of the bottom end of the market, a rise in overcrowding, and falling home ownership.
In parts of the housing world reduction of government grant for new council homes has earned him the nickname ‘No-Grant Shapps’. Bad, cynical jokes like these are about as funny as it gets in the housing these days. In any summer reshuffle he needs to go and be replaced by someone who really believes in the social value of people being decently and affordably housed, and in the economic value of building more genuinely affordable housing. Stephen Gilbert MP, please step forward.