Posted by: Jules Birch01/05/2012
It’s Communities and Local Government questions – so it must time for a barrage of contradictory statistics.
I’ve grown used to the trading of numerical insults every few weeks between coalition and opposition over the last year or so. But would a week in which politics has been dominated by a stat (the 0.2 per cent fall in GDP that means the UK is in a double dip recession) make any difference?
No chance. Not in an election week. The tone was summed up in an exchange about council tax between shadow communities secretary Hilary Benn (‘Labour councils £81 cheaper than Conservative ones for Band D’) and Eric Pickles (‘Tory ones £62 cheaper’) and was repeated over and over again.
First up, was housebuilding, a subject on which both parties pride themselves on the ability to find the most flattering and unflattering comparisons between each other. Faced with 2011’s dismal total of 98,000 housing starts, Grant Shapps simply paired it with the even more dismal figure from the depths of the credit crunch in 2009 to show that they were actually 25 per cent up.
Labour’s Jack Dromey hit back with a reference to the Shapps gold standard. ‘We know from figures released today that house building is down 26 per cent on average compared with what was achieved under a Labour government,’ he said. This is of course a comparison flattering to Labour since it smooths out the effect of the credit crunch. The ‘figures released today’ turned out to be a Labour press release quoting CLG housebuilding stats which Dromey said ‘show the government’s policies are making the housing crisis worse not better’. If that sounds familiar, that’s because he said exactly the same in February.
Shapps hit back with a repetition of the ’25 per cent up on 2009’ stat backed up with some figures that will be of consolation to a construction industry that has just gone into a triple-dip recession: ‘In the same period the value of new housing construction was up 33 per cent and construction orders were up 35 per cent,’ he said.
Will there ever be an end to Shapps and Dromey slapping each other around the head with wet statistics? Perhaps, if the housing minister gets promoted in a mooted reshuffle after the local elections (more on that on my blog here). If not, we seem set to face a never-ending wait for a clear winner to emerge.
Here’s a quick attempt to resolve it. The comparison in the CLG stats between housing starts in the six complete quarters since the election and the six before that currently favours the coalition. However, we are only six quarters into the 20 that would make up a five-year parliament. If the trend of the last six quarters is repeated over the next 14, the coalition will see around 500,000 starts in those five years. Labour managed 672,000 between 2005 and 2010. So, even if the coalition increases output, it will need another 525,000 starts in the next 14 quarters. That’s an average of 37,500 per quarter: 50 per cent more than it has managed in any quarter so far.
However, that was not the end of the statistical battles in the Commons. Attacked by a Labour backbencher over the housing market renewal programme, Shapps claimed that the coalition would build 170,000 affordable rent homes in the next three years and ‘that will be more than were built in 13 years when affordable housing numbers declined under Labour’. Invited by a Tory backbencher to condemn plans for thousands of homes in his constituency imposed by the old regional strategies, he maintained that scrapping the strategies and introducing the new homes bonus would mean ‘more building in the long run’. Invited by another Conservative to praise Boris Johnson’s record in London he argued: ‘It seems very likely that he will have delivered 50,000 homes for affordable rent. It is worth bearing in mind that fewer than that were delivered throughout the entire country under 13 years of Labour.’ Never mind, of course, that the Johnson total relies on homes funded by the last Labour government or that the 13-year total is calculated after right to buy sales that Shapps has pledged to increase.
Finally, no CLG questions would be complete without private rents. Former Labour housing minister John Healey had asked why the million families with children who are renting privately are denied ‘even the basic security of a legal right to a written tenancy agreement’ but that did not prevent Shapps quoting yet more stats (though oddly not what Inside Housing or Shelter or Hometrack say).
‘Pressure in the system caused by more than a decade of building far fewer homes than are required, which has led to rents rising very quickly,’ he said. ‘There are now some signs that rents have started to moderate. The English housing survey shows that rents rose at a slower pace than inflation; LSL Property Services shows falls for the third month in a row; and Professor Michael Ball reports that they fell by a tenth in real terms between 2008 and 2011.’
And Shapps was at it again in his response to a question from Labour’s Stephen Timms about Newham. ‘Immediately that the Newham story was flagged up, we went on just one website to search for properties and we could find within the Newham cap of £15,000 rent a year—not the £21,000 maximum cap—1,000 properties available in Newham or within five miles of it. That is why it is a disgrace that the council was considering sending people halfway across the country.’
Never mind that ‘available’ on the website is not the same as ‘available for let to local housing allowance claimants’. Things would be so much simpler if all you had to do to solve the housing crisis was look on Rightmove.
From Inside edge
Housing commentator Jules Birch puts the latest news in context