Posted by: Colin Wiles19/06/2012
I spent a few days in Manchester last week at the CIH Conference.
To begin with, I think the new venue is excellent, the programme was stimulating and the vibe was good. Thousands of intelligent conversations took place, (followed by thousands of semi-intelligent conversations as the nights wore on.) Lord Freud and Grant Shapps glided smoothly through their sessions with barely a ripple of impoliteness from the not-so-cheap seats (apart from a couple of impertinent questions that were either ignored or rebuffed).
On day one, the latest housebuilding figures were released, suggesting that England could build fewer than 100,000 new homes this year, the lowest ever in peacetime. So everyone left Manchester in agreement that the housing crisis was deepening, that housebuilding was the key to economic stimulus and that we need we need to find new models of funding.
So far so good. But if you searched through the national press at the end of the week you would struggle to find any mention of Manchester and the serious issues that had been raised at conference. Issues that are fundamental to the health and wellbeing of the nation. In fact, apart from the JRF report on housing options for young people and the excellent Hannah Fearn in The Guardian, the conference, and housing in general, was largely ignored. For the average man or woman in the street the thousands of people who assembled in Manchester could have spent their time grouse shooting on the nearby moors and they would be little the wiser.
Does this matter? Hannah Fearn thinks that those who shape policy read The Guardian so our sector’s lack of national coverage is not a big deal. I beg to differ. To start with, if policy shapers are reading The Guardian then it has hardly done us much good of late! But politicians respond to the public mood. They may get bagfuls of desperate people in their surgeries with housing problems, but unless the well-housed start to lobby them about the need to invest in housing then we stand little chance of making an effective case.
To compare and contrast, look at the impact that the National Trust had during the NPPF debate. They mobilised their 4 million members in a wholly impressive way. Hundreds of tweets went out each day, a quarter of a million signed their petition, the Daily Telegraph ran its spurious “Hands off Our Land” campaign, their Director General was invited to Number 10. Their misleading message that the countryside was about to be concreted over entered the public consciousness, and the government was rattled. By contrast, the housing sector was virtually silent throughout the campaign, even though the outcome had the potential to change the shape of our housing system for a generation. We really need to do better.
Now we may not have 4 million members but we do have 4 million tenants and we could and should be doing more to mobilise them in favour of housing investment. Former Housing Minister John Healy said that he had never come across a more introverted sector than housing. He is right. During her double act with Grant Shapps, Grainia Long, the new Chief Executive of the CIH, talked about setting the housing minister his annual objectives. Well if I could set one objective for Grainia it would be this: your media operation needs a massive shake up. We need a Max Clifford for the housing sector, someone who can make housing stories interesting and understandable and help to shift pubic opinion about the scale of the crisis. We also need to link up more effectively with others in the wider housing sector, including groups like PricedOutUK, who aim to speak on behalf of a generation that cannot afford to buy. We also need to be less polite. The National Trust was extremely robust in the way it dealt with ministers, but their campaign was effective. To be frank, cuddling up to successive housing ministers simply has not worked. It’s time for a re-think.
From Inside out
An independent look at the housing sector and beyond from Colin Wiles