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Monday 11th June 2012 | 04:21
Housing is in crisis. The gap between supply and need is ever widening. By 2025 we could have a gap of 750,000 homes – equivalent to the entire housing demand of the populations of Birmingham, Liverpool and Newcastle combined.
But this is not just a crisis of statistics. The real life impact is serious. The age of an unassisted first time buyer is predicted to increase from 37 to 44 in the coming years. Families renting from private landlords face ever-rising rents, quite the opposite to the Minister’s claims. And we’ve seen a 14% rise in statutory homelessness and, most heartbreaking of all, a 23% rise in rough sleeping. It’s a visible, visceral epidemic, harking back to the 80s when Tory policies led to cardboard cities under bridges and annual reports of deaths in cold English winters.
All political parties accept there is a crisis and all parties agree urgent action is required. But actions speak louder than words. And on housing, the Government has done a lot of talking but delivered precious little.
When he was Shadow Minister for Housing, Grant Shapps said “it's easy for a housing minister to catch your eye with a headline, but much harder to deliver more homes.” At the time it seemed like a statement of intent. In retrospect it reads like a précis of his ministerial career.
In the first two years of the Tory-led Government we’ve had 200 announcements on housing, as one initiative after another has been announced, re-announced and re-announced again. The media have done their best to fact-check the torrent of announcements but are often overwhelmed by the sheer volume of press releases. That in part is why I went back through the slew of announcements and statements and systematically reviewed whether they married up with the official statistics.
On the Government’s public land scheme we heard early last year they planned to identify enough land to build 100,000 homes. Fantastic, continuing the work of releasing public land under Labour for building much needed homes. But three re-announcements and a year later, we’re still getting press releases telling us the Government is set to “smash” the target of identifying land for 100,000 homes. Great headlines, but when will the 100,000 much needed homes actually be built?
Or there’s the Government’s “Get Britain Building” scheme, first announced in November last year and four times since. The first announcement claimed the £420 million fund would “unlock stalled sites” and build up to 16,000 homes. Skip the next three re-announcements to March this year and we had the Prime Minister announcing to much fanfare another £150 million for the fund. Except the fund was still only expected to build up to 16,000 homes. Extraordinary, the Prime Minister trumpeting an extra £150 million for no extra homes. And still no word of when the homes will be built.
The list of re-announcements goes on, from self-build initiatives to the new homes bonus but as that list lengthens so does the Government’s record of failure on housing. Under this Government we’ve seen a fall in house building, including a 99% collapse in affordable house building, rising homelessness and rising rough sleeping. We also know that the 60% cut to the affordable housing budget which hit the housing sector and the construction industry so hard, was a major element of the double-dip recession.
But when faced with questions about his housing record Grant Shapps just ducks and dives, pulling dodgy stats out of his hat.
When questioned on rising homelessness and rough sleeping he tells us they are what first brought him into politics and anyway it doesn’t matter because homelessness is at its lowest level for 28 out of the past 30 years. Are we then supposed to ignore that this is because homelessness fell 70% under Labour and it is his housing policies that are fuelling the increase?
On house building, Grant Shapps has said that building more homes than Labour is the gold standard upon which he should be judged. The latest quarter shows housing starts are down 15% on the same quarter last year and are 35% lower than the average achieved under Labour. The Housing Minister’s response is to claim they’re going up compared with 2009 when Britain’s economy was at the trough of a recession following the global financial crisis.
The truth is that confusion around the facts on housing suit the Housing Minister. He doesn’t want us to know about the government’s failures. He wants to obfuscate it behind endless announcements of ephemeral schemes that dissipate under the slightest scrutiny.
That’s why I’ve taken the step today of asking the UK Statistics Authority to take a look at his use of statistics. I did so with no small regret. I do think, given the consensus that there is a housing crisis, we should all be working towards solving it. But we can’t do that while the Housing Minister spends more time creating confusion and chasing headlines than he does delivering the homes we desperately need.
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