The Dangers of Promotion Above Ability

Watching Grant Shapps on Newsnight one wonders how on Earth he got the job of Housing Minister in the current government. He was a seconder of David Cameron’s push to become Tory leader, but still, surely he needs to have some idea of politics, let alone the portfolio he was handed? Then one looks at his cabinet colleagues: mostly shiny faced forty somethings, charmless, ‘self made’, anodyne, careerists, and almost to a man surprisingly clueless in their fields. Theresa May bucks the trend here being a fifty something woman, but she qualifies through cluelessness. The only cabinet members with any political heft are Clarke, Hague and Duncan-Smith, grace and favour ministers from the old regime, and Vince Cable – did he jump or was he pushed?

Anyway, back to young master Shapps who was on Newsnight following the launch of the coalition’s document on housing strategy on Monday. This strategy, Shapps told us, is all about economic growth and recognising that housing has been poorly served by government over several decades: the way we can solve this is by building lots of new ‘affordable housing’, thereby creating jobs, boosting the building trade and by extension the economy, and giving people the chance to ‘get on the ladder’. Sounds reasonable, no?

Well, no. The ‘strategy’ does nothing to address the devastation wrought by thirty years of Right to Buy (RTB) on social housing stock, in fact it calls for more of the same as the discount incentives offered to council tenants applying for RTB will double from 25% to 50% (one of the few positive steps Labour took on social housing was to reduce the maximum discount from 72%); it also does very little to address the chronic problems in the private rental sector.

The problems faced by tenants of private landlords have three main root causes: the loss of council housing stock; an artificially inflated housing market; a severe lack of regulation for private landlords. Far from addressing these issues, Shapps’ strategy in fact exacerbates them: more council stock will be lost under the higher RTB discounts; the building of ‘affordable housing’ for purchase by first time buyers will help to keep the false housing ‘boom’ afloat; private landlords will continue to be under regulated.

The meme of home ownership is traditionally a conservative one, using both the little and big ‘C’. It can be used to indicate prosperity, ‘responsibility’, and self dependence within the self, and those themes can be extrapolated into economic terms especially in the way that a ‘healthy’ housing market is seen to be a sign of a strong economy. However, home ownership has become more of a societal meme over the past three decades, unsurprisingly coinciding with the neo-liberal project that began under Thatcher/Reagan with its strong echoes of Ayn Rand’s ‘Objectivism’ wherein the state rejects its responsibilities to its citizens and transfers the public to the private.

The introduction of RTB in the 80s served a dual ideological purpose for the Thatcher regime: the beginning of the attack on social housing thereby reducing the obligations of the state in that area, and the attempted creation of a new, conservative (voting) home owning class (gerrymandering in all but name). This aided the change in social discourse where owning your own home became seen as being a necessity rather than merely desirable and renting is very much ‘second class’, and so we have the current fetishisation of getting yourself ‘on the ladder’. At the same time buying property is increasingly seen as being an investment rather than securing a home, monetizing the process even further: an Englishman’s home is no longer his castle, it’s part of his portfolio.

Another change in discourse has been the replacement of ‘social housing’ with ‘affordable housing’ – this again acts to add monetary ‘value’ to the idea of gaining a home. But this government’s idea of affordable housing is shiny new boxes built by private companies subsidised by public money, although any profits will of course stay in private hands. As for those new properties built to provide affordability in the rental sector, these will be let at 80% of ‘market rents’, but in a market that also has artificial ‘value’ as a result of the high prices of property and the severe lack of social housing: these factors, allied to the lack of regulation, allow private landlords to in essence write their own rules and set rents as high as they can. All these factors feed into one another and create a vicious circle which has captured millions of people in substandard, unsuitable, and harmful housing conditions.

I was talking with a friend last week about private landlords. This friend has plenty of experience having had around a dozen different landlords since moving to London in the mid 90s, and he said the best he could offer is the single landlord he didn’t have to complain about to the council. His current accommodation has no heating as the boiler has gone, the landlord’s response to complaints being implicit threats of eviction. In what was one of his better and more long term tenancies he spent weeks without a fridge at the height of summer and months without a broken shower being replaced. Another friend had to result to court action in order to get her deposit back after her landlord made ludicrous and false claims of damage being done to the property; fortunately, the District Judge saw through the lies but how many other ex-tenants would have given in not having either the fortitude of my friend or, perhaps more pertinently, her years of experience in the legal field.

The thing of it is those examples are far from being the worst. As part of my old job I would regularly visit the homes of people who had applied for housing. The best ones were usually where people were living with family, some of the private tenancies were ‘OK’, but I visited a lot of accommodation where people were subjected to overcrowding, lack of facilities, and insanitary conditions. It seems that apart from a select few, the best you can hope for from a private landlord is that they don’t make you curse them every day and don’t try to rip you off for your deposit. Even with a decent landlord the high cost of renting privately is causing many households financial problems and with the changes in housing benefits due to take effect this will only worsen.

Despite being the minister responsible for this situation, Grant Shapps hardly recognises it, let alone has the ideas to begin resolving it. In a cabinet notable for its members being resolutely non cognisant with the issues of the day, Shapps stands out for his lack of insight into the real housing problems faced by millions every day. To me he seems to be part of a clique dedicated to an ideology rather than addressing societal problems – when what you want to achieve precludes dealing with issues in a useful and practical manner, why bother to learn about what’s happening? You can simply go onto a news show and parrot the party line, especially at a time when the broadcast media have bought into your discourse and won’t challenge you too much. And when they do, you can always suggest that people go and live on a boat.

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  1. s drinkwater
    November 22, 2011 at 2:28 pm

    I’ve just spent the morning showing families round these ‘Affordable Rent’ “homes”. The majority of families are refusing them as 1) they are not affordable if you work and 2) they are not family homes. They are simply 2bed boxes, and all the units without exception have been flung up in the quest to maximise space and profit. Also one you add the extortionate service charge on top they are nearer 90% of market value.

    Whilst I agree with the 5 year rolling leases (agreed upon an assessment) the stock is not comparable in anyway to what has been sold off over the years.

    • November 22, 2011 at 11:36 pm

      Cheers, Sam, good to have some info from someone working with the new ‘affordable’ housing, though sad to see the truth confirmed.

  2. November 22, 2011 at 2:55 pm

    Great article.

    Do not forget also the contribution of spiralling housing benefit to the cost of housing (to rent or buy) – effectively subsidising amateur landlords to provide a generally poor service.

    The current government may have actually got something right for once, by breaking the feedback loop (under innumerate labour, median rents were used to set maximum claimable rent: http://www.dwp.gov.uk/local-authority-staff/housing-benefit/claims-processing/local-housing-allowance/impact-of-changes.shtml) but keep an eye on them as they may get lobbied and backtrack!

    I’m in favour of a welfare safety net (universal citizen’s income would be the cheapest to administrate, I imagine) but not in favour of my taxes being syphoned off by BTL parasites!

    • November 22, 2011 at 11:48 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Bob – I think the major problem is that private tenants will be caught up in a problem not of their own making. Landlord’s have definitely taken advantage of higher rates of HB, but I doubt they’ll be so willing to adapt in the other direction. Blairite Labour played to the markets as much as anyone and I’m far from convinced at claims that under Ed they’re moving away from that element of neo-liberalism. You’re spot on about BTL landlords, I’m tired of reading how they could be made to ‘suffer’ if market changes go against them, they took the gamble and didn’t complain about the rewards at the time.

      And then there’s the distinctly ideological side to HB changes, another attempt at stealth gerrymandering, especially in London; also the concurrent cuts reducing the number of trained staff and agencies available to assist in the housing field…

      I could go on, as my friends would probably tell you 😉

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