Thursday, 28 May 2015

Take nothing for granted

As shadow housing minister, Grant Shapps was vocal on his vision for housing. Now he has the job proper and, in his first in-depth interview since the election, Stuart Macdonald finds out if he’ll deliver.

Grant Shapps is nothing if not a populist. Finally ‘no longer the shadow housing minister’ as he puts it, Mr Shapps has made several interventions in his first weeks in office. Each has been carefully calculated to make maximum impact with the national press. ‘The housing fat cats’ screamed the Daily Mail and ‘50 housing bosses get more than PM’ The Sun, after Mr Shapps chose to rehash Inside Housing’s annual salary survey of housing association bosses earlier this month. Then, wearing his local government minister hat, there was Mr Shapps’ call for killjoy councils to let people fly their country’s flag in the street during the football World Cup.

Play with fire, though, and eventually you will get burned. Witness the mauling Mr Shapps received at the hands of The Mirror for flying his private plane to make a last-minute appointment in Swansea on Radio 4’s Any Questions. Then, closer to home, Mr Shapps thought he was aiming for an open goal last week when calling for an age of homeowning ‘aspiration’ before an audience of house builders. This might have rung true had Mr Shapps’ boss, communities minister Eric Pickles, not written to English councils the week before to tell them regional house building targets were being scrapped and revealing nothing of what might replace them. Mr Shapps’ audience was not slow to point this out.

A source close to the housing minister says all this simply shows the 41-year-old is ‘very ambitious and wants to be very visible’. Another commentator, Simon Randall, Conservative party member and consultant at law firm Winckworth Sherwood, says Mr Shapps is ‘appealing very much to the mainstream in the party’ with his housing policies and ‘striking a strong blow for localism’.

Others in the housing sector, however, question whether the minister is as passionate about housing as he claims or is simply using his first government role as a springboard to a bigger job, without much regard for the consequences of his actions. As one housing association chief executive puts it: ‘He is a typical minister - all ego. He simply does as he is told by those higher up the food chain.’

True or not, one thing is certain: as housing minister Mr Shapps will be expected by the man at the top of the food chain, prime minister David Cameron, to deliver more homes.

The job in hand

The MP for Welwyn Hatfield, re-elected last month for the second time and with a majority of more than 17,000, brands the fall in annual completions under the previous Labour government - down from a peak of 174,900 to 118,000 at the last count - as ‘incredibly damaging’.

But would he do any better? The housing sector is deeply sceptical and uses Mr Pickles’ letter as evidence. ‘There are two areas in which it is pressing for Mr Shapps to deliver: changes to the planning system in terms of abolishing central targets and bringing in the incentives plan he has discussed,’ says Richard Capie, director of policy and practice at the Chartered Institute of Housing. ‘Unless we have a clear timetable for this we will end up with a housebuilding vacuum.’

Sitting comfortably in shirtsleeves (the blue tie is donned later for the photographs) in his large corner office in the Communities and Local Government department’s central London HQ, Mr Shapps is calmness and confidence personified in the face of such doubts.

‘We have to take housing, which is one of the most inflexible and least responsive products to market pressure in the country, and make it much more responsive so you actually get homes where homes are needed,’ he says. ‘I think it is enormously important to build more homes.’

Mr Shapps highlights three areas which must be tackled to make this happen. ‘The question is why won’t there be more housing started? And the answer is that we’ve got this big national deficit which is holding the economy back. We’ve got problems with people borrowing the money to buy a house and get mortgage finance. And then we’ve got the massive inflexibilities in the market place, which are to do with planning and inflexibility of planning and land assembly and all those types of things.’

So just how will these inflexibilities be addressed? Like his colleague Greg Clark (the minister for decentralisation with whom he rushes off for lunch after our meeting), Mr Shapps is a disciple of localism and the planning reforms espoused by the right-leaning think tank Policy Exchange.
‘I don’t think it is terribly helpful to have a government that is trying to centrally plan housing numbers and targets,’ he says. ‘[For example] the question is, does the relatively free market in toaster provision allow you to easily and affordably buy a toaster? And in housing has the increasing centrally planned system where we have targets and regional spatial strategies helped to deliver?

‘My analysis is that the approach that says we need to make supply and demand flexible in order to meet each other is likely to be much more successful than saying we need to sit here in this office and dream up a number which we then claim we can deliver on the ground…So all of those things need to go and instead we will replace it with a system which I hope will be much more market responsive.’

It is certainly bold. But Mr Shapps refuses to be drawn on what level of house building he believes would constitute a more balanced housing market. He simply says: ‘Success will look better than today.’ He adds that he expects to see ‘rapid progress’ in improving affordability and cutting the ‘disgraceful’ numbers of people on social housing waiting lists.

No housing professional will disagree with a strategy that reduces the 1.8 million households on council housing waiting lists. However many struggle to see how the more benign times talked of by Mr Shapps will arrive when one of the minister’s first acts has been to call on social housing investment body, the Homes and Communities Agency, to slash its budget by more than £600 million. This translates into some 9,000 homes that will not be built, according to the National Housing Federation. While Mr Shapps admits that the savings which have to be found in a ‘myriad’ of schemes will be ‘painful’, he disputes this is pain of his making.

‘We have been left with, straight up, a £780 million deficit for the housing budget in this department,’ Mr Shapps says. ‘Not only did my [Labour] predecessor John Healey say he had the money but he also by and large committed it. This is why I have been going through all of the department’s projects this year to see what I can claw back. It’s absolutely extraordinary.’

Delete the quangos

Another area where the minister is keen to save is housing regulation. In opposition Mr Shapps made no secret of his distaste for the Tenant Services Authority and this opprobrium continues now he is in office accusing the TSA of ‘failing’ tenants with a sweeping, national approach.
‘My intention is to use the 2010 decentralisation and localism bill to delete the quango,’ he says. ‘I think it was set up as a very expensive way to do some reasonably straightforward things. One is to look after the needs of tenants and the other is look after the economic viability of housing associations.’

The minister’s plan to replace the TSA involves splitting the regulatory role in two. The HCA - or Housing Corporation mark II given its resemblance to the former quango it took over from as watchdog - would take on responsibility for governance and financial regulation because ‘obviously I’m keen to ensure that institutional investors [continue to] feel safe with their money’.

Meanwhile, the framework developed by the TSA to ensure the provision of excellent tenant services will remain - indeed, Mr Shapps claims to ‘agree with virtually every word’ in the 86-page document which he describes as ‘great work’. However, complaints that cannot be resolved by a landlord will escalate to an elected local official such as a councillor or MP, before heading to the, existing, housing ombudsman service as a final resort.

Mr Shapps admits that several details of this new system have yet to be worked out so it is unclear whether the ombudsman would take on any statutory powers, or rather refer intractable cases to the CLG and Mr Shapps. ’ I think there is a system of tenant empowerment here that could go way beyond the incredibly complex structures that the TSA envisages,’ he says, ‘and would bring power back home for tenants.’

Political partners

Those hoping that the political dogma Mr Shapps showed as shadow housing minister might be tempered by the coalition with the Liberal Democrats look set to be disappointed. Mr Shapps swears that he and junior housing minister, Lib Dem MP Andrew Stunell, have ‘not had a single cross word’. On anything. Those who bemoaned the lack of choice between the mainstream parties at the recent general election will be unsurprised to hear Mr Shapps claim that, from scrapping the housing revenue account to axing home improvement packs, there are ‘a whole load of areas we agreed on’.

This despite Mr Shapps effectively losing out on a cabinet seat when the need for a deal with the Lib Dems became clear. Mr Shapps responds to this suggestion with good humour and candour, yet you can tell that satirical tweeter GrantSchlepps isn’t too far from the truth when he suggests in his Twitter postings that the minister was somewhat miffed to miss out.

It is unlikely the sparky Mr Shapps will need help picking himself up after this setback. However, if he does he could take comfort from the fact that he seems to be in tune with the national zeitgeist. Returning from our meeting I pass a social housing refurbishment project in south east London. Following that morning’s intervention by Mr Shapps, builders are busily draping its scaffolding in England flags. He is far from losing the popularity contest yet.

Three things you didn’t know about Grant Shapps

  • The new housing minister had the most followers of any Conservative MP on Twitter ‘until William Hague joined earlier this year’ and he still ‘tweets’ at least once a day.
  • He founded his own printing business aged 22 after completing a business course at university in Manchester
  • His departmental office is effectively a building site with a development of ‘what I hope is affordable housing’ being completed metres from his office.

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