Fighting his corner
New Labour’s former housing supremo talks house building, localism and ‘that egg’. Lydia Stockdale enters the ring …
From the outset it’s clear that John Prescott is wondering how he’s been roped into this interview. But then, these days Lord Prescott - Prezza, Two Jags, Two Jabs - finds himself in many situations he wouldn’t have entertained a few years ago.
There was that advert for price comparison website Money Supermarket, then, more recently, a host of light-hearted television and radio shows. And of course, all the tweeting - sometimes sending out more than 50 messages a day.
Now he’s given Inside Housing 45 minutes to discuss his time as deputy prime minister between 1997 and 2007, for much of which he ran his own government department - the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister -responsible for housing, planning, local government and the regions.
In 2006 his responsibilities were transferred to the Communities and Local Government department. It all seems ‘a long time ago’, he mutters, as we take a seat in his office in Millbank House, which overlooks his new political home, the House of Lords.
The 73-year-old places a large mug of black coffee on the table in front of him along with a pile of papers - print outs and hand-written notes on Labour’s housing, regeneration and planning policies he’s personally associated with - including decent homes, housing market renewal pathfinders and regional development agencies.
He obviously feels the need to be well-armed with facts and figures. In just a few days Lord Prescott, who is well known to have a low opinion of the press, will give evidence at the Leveson Inquiry into media ethics and phone hacking. The reason he likes Twitter so much, he says, is because he learned he ‘could do stories and not have to go through an editor’.
This unfettered editorial freedom saw him recently tweet his intention to seek nomination for one of the UK’s first police and crime commissioner’s posts. In November, his former constituents in Hull East will be among the Humberside voters who get to decide whether they want their former MP of 40 years to oversee their local police force.
Widely cited as being the person who kept the peace between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown during the New Labour years, his party’s current leader seems to have already given his endorsement. ‘John Prescott is an unstoppable force and I’m sure he’d be a great police commissioner,’ Ed Miliband has been filmed saying.
But on the morning I meet the ‘unstoppable force’ he does not want to talk about his potential new role and what his stance might be on anti-social behaviour, for example. He’s only prepared to speak about housing - both his own party’s record, and his opinions on the coalition government’s policies.
At first, the conversation is stilted. ‘Now explain what you’re trying to do in your article,’ he begins, arms firmly folded across his chest. ‘Why don’t we see how it goes and I just don’t answer questions [I don’t want to answer],’ he nods, looking at me from the corner of his eye.
Parameters drawn, it’s time for the first of those questions. During its time in power, Labour built just 18,428 affordable homes per year and house building in general fell to its lowest level since the 1920s - a fact that is often waved around by the Conservatives. But before I can put this to him, Lord Prescott ditches his vow to hear me out before choosing whether or not to respond - and gets in first, with an admission that perhaps, in hindsight, he could have played things differently. ‘What I regret, in a way, was you never get a tick for a [refurbished home] - it’s a new home, but it it’s not a new house,’ he begins. ‘Our first priority was to reinvest in a decent homes programme, about £20 billion into 2 million homes.’
As a result just 217,100 council-owned homes are now classed as non-decent. ‘To my mind, I’ve got to live my life; I get the responses from the ordinary public, not from the press or the big boys. People living in those homes are a lot bloody better off. I had a little old lady say to me, “oh it’s so lovely now I’ve got central heating. I can invite my grandkids around now without them getting flu”.’
Jewel in the crown
Looking back, Lord Prescott admits he also has doubts about his decision to prioritise funding for housing association house building programmes over those of local authorities. ‘I have one regret, I think, and that’s giving more subsidies to housing associations rather than councils. I thought the quality of houses built by housing associations was far better. Council housing was seen by the party as the jewel in the crown - but I wouldn’t put the dog - never mind bloody people - in some of them I’ve seen built.’
Lord Prescott feels the need to defend his actions - but then he has taken a lot of the blame for perceived failings by his department. ‘He was the person who could and should have made a big difference to government policy on council housing,’ sums up a disappointed Eileen Short, chair of Defend Council Housing. ‘Instead, we had the attrition of council housing through large-scale stock transfer [to housing associations].’ But one senior Labour Party source points out that when looking back at his legacy as deputy prime minster, Lord Prescott’s decisions must be considered in context.
‘It was a time of cheap mortgages and a boom in house prices - it was looking like that was going to deliver [homes] for everybody - and everybody got that wrong, not just Prescott,’ says the source. ‘The idea that there would be another generation of social house building only came about around five years ago. Before that the consensus was that the problem of the bad condition of council housing was so great, it had to be the priority.’
One programme that can be pinned on Lord Prescott, however, is the £2.25 billion housing market renewal programme, which he launched in 2002. Described by an ex-colleague, who did not want to be named, as a ‘professional northerner’, the former deputy prime minister’s aim with the pathfinders was - as he puts it - to try ‘to lift the regeneration of areas’ across the midlands and the north of England. The programme was in-tended to continue for 15 years, but it was labelled a ‘shambles’ and cancelled by the coalition, leaving boarded up houses and empty spaces where rows of homes used to be.
Price rise experiment
‘It was an experiment to see if you lift up the prices of the houses in an area,’ explains Lord Prescott. ‘I think they had about nine of these pathfinder bodies and we gave them quite a lot of money, but they didn’t work as a co-ordinated group, so there were different policies in different areas.’
Source: Jon Enoch
There are some good examples where housing market renewal worked. He singles out Newcastle Gateshead, but in other areas ‘there were a couple of things working against it’.
‘Particularly in Liverpool at that time [the council] couldn’t move in and knock the houses down fast enough. They wanted to look as if, “we’ve got a housing programme”, and so they were knocking them down far faster than they could replace them. They knocked the whole bloody lot down so you had bomb sites everywhere, and that got blamed on the pathfinder programme.’
Worked up now, Lord Prescott sighs loudly, before moving on the subject of house builders - another group he doesn’t seem particularly fond of.
‘They kept blaming their “land banks” for not building more homes,’ he says, spitting out the words ‘land’ and ‘banks’. ‘They blamed planning, and it is just a load of bloody rubbish. The industry wanting to keep [housing supply] controlled. It always has the advantage of always having demand greater than supply. It’s a disgrace.’
He tried to work with house builders to develop more affordable homes - for example, a 2005 competition to build a house for £60,000, he recalls, but the builders and the bankers ‘weren’t happy about the finance’.
It was only a matter of time before Lord Prescott would move on to bashing the coalition’s policies - and he starts with the national planning policy framework. ‘What house builders want, of course, is green, profitable sites - they don’t like the brownfield sites - so the government’s now co-operating,’ he says incredulously.
Although he ‘saw things in a regional sense’ while he was in power, localism does not appeal to Lord Prescott. ‘You’ve got to put housing, regeneration and planning together, and that means a scale bigger than local authorities. Localism means that councillors daren’t upset the people in their area if they think that [the development of housing] is wrong.’
It was a mistake, he says, to scrap the regional development agencies that he introduced, and the regional spatial strategies, which dictated the number of homes that needed to be built across local authority boundaries.
Shapps ‘is a yacker’
‘[The government] got rid of our RDAs and set up these piddling little business committees [local enterprise partnerships], which have no power, no money and are absolutely useless.’
There’s been ‘a complete collapse’ in house building, he states - statistics published by the Homes and Communities Agency show there were just 454 affordable housing starts onsite in England between 1 April 2011 and 30 September 2011.
‘I think they’ve done 37 statements, so we’ve had a massive increase in statements from the department on housing, a lot of talk, but no action. It’s just talking. This Grant “Snapps”, it’s all he does - he’s a yacker…’
Lord Prescott’s iPhone rings and interrupts his flow. He chats for a few minutes before hanging up, explaining that the call was to do with the police and crime commissioner role. And now he’s let his defences down a little, he’s prepared to indulge me with a snippet of his thoughts on the role of the police within communities. ‘The police already have to do a lot of social work,’ he says.
Cuts to funding for public services will mean ‘increasing social problems’, he continues. ‘As social problems increase in a community, the more the community wants the police to deal with it. So I ring up and say, “this person next door is being terrible” - the amount of calls like this is so phenomenal you’d need a whole regiment just deal with them.’
The elections for the new commissioners, who are expected to earn a salary of £75,000, in 41 police force areas across England and Wales, mean that the police will have to take into ‘account the public’s priorities’, he explains.
We’ve now run over our allotted time and Lord Prescott is miraculously still talking. The thaw I’ve just witnessed is a scaled down version of the change in his public persona - from Prescott, the angry politician to Prescott the lively online celebrity - over the past few years. His 117,000 followers on Twitter, in particular, relish the snappy, often humorous, messages he posts on the site.
Cutting tweets like this one sent to the owner of News International in the midst of the Leveson Inquiry prove particularly popular: ‘Hey
@rupertmurdoch, no hard feelings. I’ve just left you a good luck message on my voicemail!’
‘He’s completely reinvented himself - it’s fascinating,’ observes a source who has known him for two decades. ‘I think he’s is a very decent bloke, but he has an enormous chip on his shoulder, and that stopped him from being the nice, funny John,’ she adds.
‘When I’m in politics it’s a serious game and the guy opposite me, if he don’t believe what I believe in, I’ve got to try to knock his bloody arguments down. I think my style is a bit aggressive,’ the man himself admits. ‘I think the sisters [presumably female politicians] thought I was a bit macho. I don’t think probably the egg thing helped,’ he adds, referring to the occasion he famously punched protester Craig Evans after he threw an egg at him in 2001.
‘Now, all of sudden, people say, “Christ, he smiles”. They now see this colourful part to my character, which they can have a laugh about,’ he says with a hint of one of those new grins.
And with this, a very different John Prescott to the one who greeted me, shows me out. ‘Good luck love,’ he says, reluctantly catching my eye for a fraction of a second as he shakes my hand. Then he presses the button for the lift, and waits until I’m gone.
Prezza on right to buy
‘It’s really unbelievable’, states John Prescott, referring to the coalition’s plan to increase the discounts on social homes so that tenants can more easily afford to buy their own properties. ‘It’s a crazy policy,’ he says. ‘I changed the discounts for right to buy because the houses were being bought by the sons and daughters of tenants - and when mum died they sold it off. They made a capital killing, and it cost us billions of pounds.
‘What happens with right to buy is that all the best houses go. They [the government] say they’ll give the capital receipts [from the homes sold] to build another house. Now, that’s very interesting isn’t it, because if you’re going to sell it at a discount, and house prices are going up, how does one replace one? It can’t possibly.’
More from John Prescott on…
… being called ‘Lord Prescott’
‘I don’t like it. A fella came up to me the other day and said, “Good morning Lord Prescott”. I said, “You’ve been calling me John for 40 years.” He turned to my wife and said, “What about you?” She said, “I don’t mind being called Lady”. It’s dropping off now. I think people got a bit of a kick out of saying it – it’s like “I know a Lord”. There’s a bit of snobbery about it you know, it’s what you find.’
… decent homes improvements
‘I had a little old lady say to me, “Oh it’s so lovely now I’ve got central heating. I’ve got a wet room for my husband” – I thought, “What the hell is a wet room”.’
… journalists’ criticisms of the pathfinder programme
‘You had all of these people down in London writing these articles, saying that the houses were Victorian and, “oh we must keep them”. Well we insisted [the improvements] had to be done good quality – they said it’s cheaper to just tart them up. They’ve never lived in it, never seen what it’s like. That’s one of the things I got really upset about.’
… Ringo Starr’s house
‘In Liverpool we had all this stupid talk about [knocking Ringo’s house down as part of the housing market renewal pathfinder programme]. There were whole streets of housing there where the roofs went like that [wobbly]. They were falling apart. Save Ringo’s house! Ringo never even lived there – I think it was a couple of weeks with his auntie or something daft.’