Saturday, 01 November 2014

Asking the questions

From: Inside edge

Housing was under scrutiny in the House of Commons and on prime time TV yesterday and the comparison did not flatter the mother of parliaments.

In the Commons, it was CLG questions and the first chance for MPs to question housing minister Grant Shapps about the housing strategy and his handling of the fall-out from the 97% fall in the number of affordable homes.

All last week the main contenders had been talking up the fight: the Labour contender Jack Dromey with a series of barbs about the 454 homes and warming up with a Guardian Q&A ; the coalition champion Shapps releasing a robust open letter over the weekend.

Come Monday 2.30 and they were stripped for action. Parliamentary questions are actually more like tag team wrestling than boxing since MPs take it in turn to have a go at the ministers and it was Labour’s Rushnara Ali who made the first move.

The first question is always something general and Shapps flipped it back easily enough. ‘Housing starts over the six quarters since the Government were formed are up 24% when compared with the previous six quarters under the previous Government.’

Nonsense, said Ali. ‘The actual figures were a 7% decrease in housing starts, a 6% fall in net supply in the past year and a 99% fall in affordable housing in the past six months.’

Shapps replied: ‘We can all play with figures, but I would have thought that the only accurate indication -.’ At this point Hansard says [Interruption], which I imagine was rather like the bit in wrestling where the crowd boo the pantomone villain. The minister went on: ‘Well, I would have thought that the actual indication on which everyone in the House could agree would mean taking the period since we have been in power and comparing it with the same period beforehand. If we do so, we discover that housing starts are up by almost one quarter, which of course is in stark contrast with the record under the previous administration, when the number of affordable homes reduced by 200,000.’

The intensity rose when the former Labour champion Nick Raynsford stepped into the ring. ‘The minister says that he wants to compare the period in which the current government have been in power with an equivalent period under the previous government, but he seems to be under an illusion that the current government came to power on 1 April 2010. They did not. Will he now stop trying to take credit for housing that was built during the period of the previous, Labour government and show respect for statistical honesty and truth, which we in this House regard as important? ‘

That was more like it. But Shapps flipped himself off the ropes with: ‘If the right hon. Gentleman, as a distinguished former housing minister, is asking me to stop including four weeks, he has his wish.’ [Hmmm. The coalition actually started on 12 May and he was not appointed until the next day].

And then it was the Labour champion’s turn. The government’s own figures showed new homes down 6%, homelessness up 10% and a catastrophic 99% fall in affordable house building, said Dromey. ‘So few new homes have been built that the Housing Minister could visit them all in the next six weeks. Does he accept that this is a direct consequence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s £4 billion cut in housing investment, and that this sorry record of failure demonstrates that the Government’s housing policy, like their economic policies, are hurting, not working?’

It will not surprise you to learn that Shapps did not accept that - or that he used his tried and tested put-down that Dromey is the sixth Labour housing minister or shadow he has faced across the despatch box. He replied that: ‘Actually the figures for those in temporary accommodation are down by 4%, and that homelessness is at its lowest level for 28 of the past 30 years.’

Even in a stats fest, that last one sounded a bit weak, but Shapps had more: ‘On the specifics of the numbers, I know that he is keen to twist official statistics to try to represent whatever he wants to show, but the truth is that I could not possibly visit 92 different providers, which I can now reveal to the House have agreed to build 70,000 units at a cost of £1.4 billion. That is far in excess of anything delivered by the previous administration. I know that he has not been in the job for long, but many of his predecessors are on the opposition back benches, so he could consult them and ask how we ended up with 200,000 fewer homes.’

That was better - especially the patronising put-down. There was still time for a quick replay of that ‘28 out of the past 30 years’ stat in a question on homelessness (I imagine it will get another airing when the latest homelessness stats are published on Thursday) and a rematch between Shapps and Dromey’s predecessor Alison Seabeck about like-for-like replacements under the right to buy.

And there was also a chance for Eric Pickles (who would willingly wrestle him?) to praise a recent book by Labour’s David Lammy.

‘In recommending the book, I would draw members’ attentions to the insightful point that “Labour’s greatest dereliction of duty in government was social housing.” I am sure we can all agree on that.’

But if this is really the best that parliament can offer thank goodness for Channel 4. If you missed them last night, the second part of Jon Snow’s Landlords from Hell and the first part of George Clarke’s Great British Property Scandal are well worth making the time to watch.

I imagine some local authorities and housing associations will be crying foul this morning about some TV over-simplification and there was some interesting division of opinion on twitter.

However, both programmes shone a light on issues that would otherwise go largely unnoticed outside the housing world. And there is more to come from the Property Scandal season tonight, tomorrow and Thursday - and National Empty Homes Week continues too.

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