Opinion: Why Grant Shapps must be evicted as Housing Minister

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.

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  • ” … comes across as one of the few Tories one could go for a drink with without feeling a little dirty afterwards”

    That says it all, doesn’t it? It shows the contempt in which you hold millions of your fellow citizens, just because they don’t agree with your politics.

  • Simon Beard 9th Jun '12 - 5:28pm

    “…Stephen Gilbert MP, please step forward”

    Steve is a Lib Dem and so could not replace a Tory minister (not unless we wanted to give up another ministerial position and negotiate like hell anyway, and even then…)

    Do you have any Conservatives in mind? Or are they all just to ‘orrible?

  • Richard Dean 9th Jun '12 - 6:40pm

    In short, you don’t like his policies, so you want him to go. Why not be a bit more honest – argue the policies, not the personalities?

  • Not sure what I think about the article, but on the comments so far, they seen unnecessarily reactive: @Julian, by Tories I assumed he meant party members or MPs and therefore hardly referring to ‘millions of fellow citizens’ but rather those with whom he has a strong philosophical difference… @Simon, there are plenty of other options open in terms of shuffling round ministers from various parties, Stephen would be a rather good choice all things considered and @Richard, I think, re-reading the article, he was going almost entirely for policy and competence which are what you want from a minister (if anything, on personality he is complementary!)

  • Yusuf Osman 10th Jun '12 - 4:50pm

    Interesting piece. As with a lot of government policy it seems to be going for the simple option. Too much money spent on Housing Benefit? The anser is obviously to cap it. Well actually no it isn’t. You need to ask a more nuanced question that being why are rents so high and then of course you get into lack of properties in the social market and enormous rents in the private market. So, instead of Housing Benefit caps why not look at a cap in the rent in the private market, building more houses and compulsory purchase of private properties that can then be given to social property owners and rented at reasonable or even below market prices. I’d have thought that all three of the above options should be a part of the solution. Finally there’s the crime of all those empty properties. Take a look here
    it says there’s 720,000 empty properties across England. Even if we accept that some of those properties may not be suited to being put straight into the housing market, many are and would make a big difference to the problems we’re trying to deal with. Unfortunately its easy to say there are too many people on benefits and it feeds into the tabloid press’s attitudes towards those of us that are through no fault of our own dependent on the state for support.

  • Yusuf, you may well ask your more “nuanced” question, but you come up with the wrong answer. Why do you think anyone has the right to cap what people charge for their property, for instance? Rent control has failed time after time in any case, so even were it a legitimate policy tactic, it would likely result in some pretty nasty consequences as it has done the world over where it has been tried. Likewise, who has the right to say “well we’re paying too much Housing Benefit so instead let’s spend everyone’s money building subsidised property where we think people should live”?

    No, if you want to reduce housing costs and permanently, then you have to deflate what has caused them to rise – the private collection of economic rent (i.e. land costs). There are many ways of doing this – I used to prefer Land Value Tax, but am less sure now and would prefer more market solutions, like the privatisation of the infrastructure that makes land valuable so that in future it is paid for by property ones and users and not by taxpayers – since that is a direct subsidy from the taxpayer to the landowner.

    Finally on empty homes. This headline figure of 720,000 is misleading. First there are only 278,000 empty for more than six months. Second they are *mostly* (not “some”) in areas of low and in some cases still falling housing demand. They are not a big part of the solution, unless of course in your rent capped, compulsory purchased, socialist state you are going also to want to dictate where people live so that the available housing is used up efficiently?

  • LondonLiberal 11th Jun '12 - 9:32am

    Thanks for everyone taking the time to comment.

    Julian – i don’t hold every Tory voter in contempt (although I have met some who have scared me witless with their bigotry and ignorance, which in some cases is exactly why they’ve voted Tory). I have to admit, when a group of people consistently denigrate public servants, lavish praise and tax break on the wealthiest 1% (who also bankroll their party), seek to hollow out the state and hive it off to the private sector, suck up to News Corp, are consistently reckless in their attacks on the least able and most vulnerable in society, and so consistently lie about what they’re doing, then i do consider them worthy of contempt. They frankly deserve a lot more.
    Simon – i couldn’t think of a decent Tory who i’d trust to do the right thing on housing. I know the rules about swapping like for like Minister-wise – replacing Andrew Stunell and shifting DCLG responsibilities was what i had in mind.
    Richard – i did spend most of the article talking about policies! but individuals matter as they are of greater or lesser effect, and so i thought it appropriate to note Shapps’s standing in the sector for context.
    Henry – thanks! exactly as you say (and i say above).
    Dave – i have responded a lot to AS’s comments in previous posts, and have taken issue with a lot of his policies in the past. If you want a greater level of analysis on policy detail, you can look at all my posts in Andrew’s pieces, but i think you’ll find a decent amount of policy dealt with above. Bear in mind that Andrew will parrrot out the Government line, which isn’t always the whole story.
    Matthew – i haven’t read or heard much from the groups you mention, I’m afraid. I would have throught that landlords are fairly happy with Shapps as he hasn’t proposed any regulation for them and his housing policies have helped lead to such an undersupply and a seizing up of the market that landlords have seen rents shoot up in many areas.
    Yusuf – well said. i entirely agree. The empty homes point is well made – Andrew Stunell is pursuing this doggedly, which is fine, but given that most empty homes are in areas of relatively low housing demand – the’s often why they’re empty – it won’t really do anything to address the housing crisis in southern england.
    Jock – you have reminded me – i really must read up on LVT – it comes up all the time and i still haven’t got my head round it (shamefully for a libdem)!

  • Richard Dean 11th Jun '12 - 2:52pm

    Apologies if my comment offended. I was responding emotionally – calls for people’s heads usually do that to me! I ended up doing what I criticized you for doing!

    Take the idea of building more homes in the South East. Is this really LibDem policy? As a party of national government, we need to be looking after the nation as a whole, and we need to recognize that we can’t be popular with everyone all the time. Sometimes we have to risk losing support in order to do the right thing, and there are ways to do this that don’t end up getting us all out of power.

    One of the national issues is the disparity between the rich London and the South East and the rest of the country, the “regions”. It is people who build communities, develop local cultures and wealth, etc, so to correct this disparity we need to encourage people as well as investment to move out to the Regions. One way the Regions have to attract this movement is through cheaper housing. So, if we want to encourage this, one of our options is to NOT build new homes in London or the SE, even let rents go sky high there, but the build in the Regions instead. After all, if the Regions offer opportunities and people choose instead to live in squalor in London and the SE, that’s their right – they’re free to do so, and as Liberals we should not prevent them from that choice.

    So in this sense Shapps is doing half of what we should support – not bothering to build in London and the SE. Perhaps we should simply encourage him to get started on the other half – building in the Regions – rather than call for his head?

  • You seem to be suggesting that central government either promotes or at least turns a blind eye to “squalor” in order to encourage people to uproot from their communities (which you say they have created) to fulfil some social geography project. This is to me utterly repellant, but sadly all too typical of political discourse that treats people as pawns (like the hateful stuff wreaked on communities in the name of the London Plan and so on highlighted by last week’s “The Secret History of Our Streets“).

    People are more than those playing pieces on any politician’s strategy map of economic distribution. There is plenty of space in the south east, and for a lot more people (the current population at similar densities to some areas off the Cromwell Rd would fit comfortably onto the Isle of Wight and Portsmouth).

    Why is what you suggest any better than, for example, saying we should reduce intraregional transfers in order to make less economically successful regions more hungry for success and compete better with the current success stories?

  • LondonLiberal 11th Jun '12 - 4:38pm

    Hi Richard,

    regional policy is a nut that hasn’t been successfully cracked, i’m afraid. One would think that market economics would mean that, as commercial costs and the general cost of living rose in London and SE England, people would stop moving here. In fact that hasn’t happened – rather things have got even more heated in this little corner of England. I guess this is because a lot of companies locate their UK or European base in London for obvious reasons (profile i think counts as much as connectivity, for example) and that in turn means that other companies locate there to service them, and so on and so on. There’s only so much that the state can do to balance this out. Will locating the BBC in salford mean that that becomes the new hub of media in England? i wouldn’t bet on it.

    Your solution of letting the poor suffer while some rebalancing takes place isn’t practical – what about people like me, born in London but who are locked out of home ownership? Should native Londoners have to move to Burnley (for example) simply to be able to afford a mortgage? Sure, home ownership is no one’s right, and we all have to cut our cloth according to our means, but i’m not asking for a mansion in Mayfair. Simply the sort of economic opportunities afforded to our parents. Personally, i would start by banning the sale of any property in London and the South east to a non-British citizen. The rich greeks, chinese, and russians will have to go and inflate someone else’s property market.

  • These policy suggestions are making me wonder whether I have stumbled into some kind of a parallel universe where “liberal” means “national socialist”.

  • LondonLiberal 11th Jun '12 - 5:06pm

    @ Jock Coats

    Yes, i predict a thousand year coalition!

  • LondonLiberal 11th Jun '12 - 5:07pm

    jock – ps i think if you read the Lonodn Plan you’d be hard pushed to find any ‘hateful stuff’!

  • Richard Dean 11th Jun '12 - 5:10pm

    Being liberal is not the same as being soppy. If people have a free choice of living well in the regions and living in squalor in London, and if people choose toive in squalor, it is liberal to allow them to do so.

    It should be straightforward for government to lead the way in terms of developing connectivity in the regions. For instance, they could choose to site the next London Airport outside Newcastle. HS2 routes could focus on connecting Regions to regions, rather than Regions to London. And high-speed broadband means that face-to-face meetings can be done online. The Treasury could be re-located to Liverpool, the Foreign Office to Bristol, etc.

    People I know say they want to live in London because that’s where life is. I tell them they are lazy, greedy, selfish so-and-so’s who ar living off the investments of toil that their parents made in creating London. What they should be doing instead is moving to the Regions and toiling to help create those places. Well, I’m getting invited to fewer parties in London, but more in Hull! Where are the LibDem votes, I wonder?

  • Richard Dean 11th Jun '12 - 5:33pm

    Isn’t it wonderful how some people prefer to be poor, and even to force others to be so?

    Banning foreign ownership of London property simply sends that money elsewhere, like New York or Paris. And the business will follow.

    Gives a whole new meaning to the nut of regional policy.

  • I’m on about Abercrombie’s London Plan of 1944-ish. Wholesale destruction of communities, scattering them to the four winds in the pursuit of some Le Corbusian “city as a machine” dream leaving scars that have still to heal.

    Richard, if what you are suggesting is that the state actively intervene to create poverty from which people might wish to flee to the uplands and former industrial wastes through preventing development, that is just plain wrong. If, given a free rein, the market cannot provide sufficient housing at a bearable cost then that’s a natural process where suddenly the agglomeration benefits of locating in the south east are proving to be less than the market rate for housing and there would be a completely natural shift in preferences for being elsewhere.

    If you are proposing the latter I withdraw my horrified reaction! If the former, I say it is no better than a grand deliberate social engineering project that politicians love to indulge in so long as they are not the victims and it ill behoves a liberal.

  • I agree to an extent with your ideas for infrastructure spending. With the “all roads lead to London” syndrome London gains hugely at the expense of regions. But rather than picking winners centrally, national LVT would do the job through economic market incentives rather than state central planning.

    Also as in the other thread about radical devolution, giving such devolved areas responsibility for their own trade policies and economic development would bring competition that would drive up economic success as different areas tried different things to bring in investment, again as opposed to special pleading to central planner to favour one region over another.

    And finally, I would give some areas some kind of Charter City designation, perhaps taking them out of the UK tax and government planning system altogether and letting them compete their way to success openly.

    But if using state powers to prevent natural expansion of places people apparently value being would be repugnant.

  • Richard Dean 11th Jun '12 - 6:23pm

    I cannot see how any sane person could consider my comments as suggesting the state “actively intervene to create poverty”. Phrases like “cognitive impairment” spring to mind. Deciding to do nothing is just as much a policiy decision as deciding to do something. Deciding to damage the regions by supporting London is just as much a policy decision as deciding to damage London by supporting the regions. Maybe we can try to avoid the damage bit? But if people want to live in poverty, let us not force them not to!

  • Shapps is doing a fabulous job for large house builders and BTL landlords. Restrict supply, keep demand, high, then ludicrous house prices can be maintained, rents go up and the government can blame the poor for not being able to afford the rent, thus the housing benefit bill keeps rising. Bravo, the Right Honourable BTL minister, splendid job!

  • one of our options is to NOT build new homes in London or the SE, even let rents go sky high there, but the build in the Regions instead

    Richard, this is your offending sentence! If by this you mean maintain a stranglehold on development permissions in order that rents go sky high, that would be wrong.

  • Londonliberal 11th Jun '12 - 11:35pm

    @ Richard dean

    Why would banning foreign ownership send money elsewhere? If people wanted to live here they’re still welcome to rent. Many wealthy foreign owners of London property don’t live in it – they rent it out, often back to us poor natives who don’t have the capital for the massive deposits required. Many of the superwealthy only add to the economy from the vat on the luxury goods they purchase in the west end and from the stamp duty on properties. I suggest that being in hock to rich people for these reasons is far worse than ensuring native Brits can be reasonably housed in their own city.

  • Maybe we should do something really radical, like allowing people to build houses where the work is.

    I believe there are counties in the world where this is possible. Indeed, I am told it was once possible in this country…

  • Richard Dean 12th Jun '12 - 2:31pm

    There is no such thing as absolute freedom. Every single thing that a government decides or does is a piece of social engineering. It has effects. It creates losers as well as winners and in-betweeners. We cannot be popular with everyone all of the time. If we can’t face facts, we have no business running for office at all.

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