Posted by: Jules Birch04/09/2012
Many people will be celebrating the departure of Grant Shapps today. My own feelings are much more mixed.
I’ve disagreed with the housing minister on most of the major policy changes he’s made, from ending security of tenure to affordable rent and from watering down the homelessness legislation to pay to stay, as well as those he hasn’t like greater regulation of the private rented sector.
However, I’ve never agreed with those who regard him as a few sheets short of a ministerial brief: the Stan Laurel to the Oliver Hardy of Eric Pickles. Entertaining as the comparison was at the time, amusing as it may be to play #shappstistics and #shappsbingo on twitter, if he was just a figure of fun would he have been able to deliver the most radical change in social housing policy for 30 years?
In doing so he has taken an agenda devised in Conservative west London and implemented it with astonishing speed. He’s used the prospect of ‘localism’ to hoodwink the Lib Dems into agreeing to policies they opposed and he’s easily beaten off a Labour opposition that still does not know where it stands on the key issues.
Grant Shapps is a far more complex character than he first appeared. I’ve blogged before about his many faces and his many more faces as Bumptious Shapps jostles for position with Political Shapps, Shameless Shapps, Comedy Shapps and Rapping Shapps. But none of that had prepared me for the appearance over the weekend of his business alter-egos, Michael Green and Sebastian Fox.
For a while it seemed that they might even be enough to wipe him from Downing Street’s reshuffle whiteboard but it’s just been confirmed that he will indeed be replacing Baroness Warsi as Conservative Party co-chair. Who knows, maybe those cheesy books about How to Bounce Back from Recession could even come in handy?
But what about his record as housing minister? As I may have mentioned once or twice, the statistics on housebuilding, homelessness, affordable homes and private sector rents all have to go in the minus column (despite his valiant attempts to spin a good news story out of them). None of his confident pronouncements about the impact of the new homes bonus or building more homes than Labour show any signs of delivering. On just about every measure, the housing crisis has got worse under his stewardship (although in fairness it was always likely to with the economy in recession and housing investment cut by 65 per cent).
Later this week his successor will presumably help to launch the coalition’s housing strategy mark 3 in hopes that stats do not emerge a few days later showing a 97 per cent fall in affordable housing starts. Throughout his term in office, Shapps showed a naïve faith that giving housebuilders everything they want would do the trick when the evidence suggests that they are intent on building their profit margins rather than homes. On what is currently the biggest housing issue facing the country, his time in office has to go down as two wasted years.
On the plus side, at least he has been in the job for over two years (five if you include his time as shadow housing minister). Compared to the revolving door comings and goings under Labour that makes him a veteran who knows his brief. That, plus an ability to charm his critics, was much in evidence at the CIH conference in Manchester in June. Easy as it was to deride many of his initiatives, some of them (like self-build) have still made progress thanks to him.
Shapps has also been refreshingly honest about the fundamental problem in our housing system: that house prices are too high and need to come down. He deserves great credit for speaking out against the assumption that ever-rising prices are a good thing (even if he’s failed to see that this contradicts his argument that everything that is not a market rent is a ‘subsidy’).
He’s said that homelessness is what got him into politics and (discharge of the homelessness duty aside in my opinion) has done some good work in office. It’s worth pointing out that his final public act as housing minister was to announce that homelessness prevention grant will be protected until 2015. I’ve got no inside knowledge but that does seem like an unusual move by an outgoing minister and it was accompanied by confirmation of plans for StreetLink, a new service to be run by Homeless Link and Broadway that aims to ensure that as few people as possible face spending Christmas on the streets. That’s not a bad legacy to leave behind and it’s not hard to see that a new minister could be bad news for homelessness and supported housing.
Even his more grandiose statements are not necessarily a bad thing. His ‘gold standard’ of building more homes than Labour looks about as likely as his pledge to make us a nation of homebuilders but they were both ways of holding him to account and highlighting his record. So was his statement at the CIH conference about grant funding after 2015. A new minister will simply be able to shrug them off as nothing to do with them.
So for all of those reasons, plus a more personal one that he has given me so much to write about over the last five years, I will regret the departure of Grant Shapps.
The appointment of a new minister (not expected until tomorrow) presents opportunities as well as dangers. Maybe they will be open to movement in territory that was closed off until now – notably (as I was reminded on twitter this morning) on the need for greater regulation in the private rented sector that Shapps dismissed as ‘red tape’. Maybe they will not be quite so effective in driving through measures that undermine social housing. Maybe they will be prepared to admit that relying on housebuilders and the market is no solution to the housing crisis. Maybe they will even be part of a beefed-up housing department and have cabinet status. But I’m not holding my breath.
From Inside edge
Housing commentator Jules Birch puts the latest news in context