Beyond the fringe

Originally posted on October 11 on my blog for Inside Housing

Gavin Barwell has apparently spent the last two weeks telling old people who should inherit their property wealth and young people they should live in rabbit hutches.

The comments prompted outrage online and in the comment pages of the newspapers and the ones about inheritance saw him ‘slapped down’ by Downing Street. These were ‘personal comments’ and ‘certainly not policy’, said No 10.

But what did the housing minister actually say?

First, old people. He told a Conservative conference fringe meeting that his own grandmother had recently disinherited him and his brother so that she could pass her assets on to her five grandchildren. Asked whether other people should think about doing the same, he said ‘yes, absolutely’.

But far from advocating this or suggesting it was a good thing he went on to say:

‘I don’t want to live in a country where you have to have a wealthy grandparent to have a chance of getting on the housing ladder in this country. We need to think about their ability to get on the housing ladder. That does not mean you have to say yes to every single scheme, but it does mean we should always be thinking about this desperate need to build more home.’

Second, rabbit hutches. Barwell told another fringe meeting that flats with smaller rooms might be one way to help young people afford to buy. He was talking about the need to innovate in the private sector and cited the deal done between Pocket and the Greater London Assembly that gives some flexibility on space standards.

But he added:

‘Now look: most people, given the choice, would like to live in a nice big home. But I think for many young people – if I was 22 today, I would rather have the chance to own that than be priced out.’

In a third meeting, he appeared to suggest that council houses somehow cause inequality. That was enough to get me tweeting about it – though I later realised that what he actually meant was striking the right balance in planning new schemes. Require too many affordable homes and you need even more luxury homes to pay for them, leaving nothing in between.

Now there is a debate to be had about all three of those issues. It is appalling that home ownership increasingly depends on inherited wealth, terrible that young people can only afford shoeboxes and awful that we don’t build genuinely affordable homes.

But there are nuances to all of them that we should discuss. Despite the headlines Barwell was not advocating any of these as solutions to the housing crisis, more raising things that may have to be considered. He was commenting on the mess that is our housing system and forcefully and consistently putting what he called ‘the moral case’ about why new homes are desperately needed.

Perhaps the minister was naïve to think that his comments would not be reported like this. Predecessors unwise enough to talk about inheritance or building in the countryside have discovered this to their cost.

Perhaps it says something about how far housing has moved up the political agenda that its minister now has to be almost as aware as a football manager that what he says could be taken out of context and turned into hyped-up headlines and clickbait comment.

But it would be a shame if it causes him to abandon what has been a promising start in the job and play it safe. He’s impressed those who heard him at the National Housing Federation conferences, those Tory fringe meeting and last week’s Housing Market Intelligence conference with his lack of dogma, his grasp of detail and his willingness to listen.

Contrast what he’s been saying since July with the nonsense spouted by his predecessor and you’ll get my point. The shift in tone from an obsession with home ownership to an interest in all tenures could hardly be more marked.

This blog has not been shy of criticising housing ministers when they deserve it but that makes it all the more important to defend them too when it’s appropriate. Especially when that minister looks like being a Conservative for the foreseeable future.

The real tests will come when Barwell has to turn his words into actions. As I blogged after the Conservative conference, it remains to be seen whether the rhetoric of ‘housing that works for everyone’ can be turned into reality or whether the whole thing will collapse under the weight of its own contradictions.

When it comes to the Housing and Planning Act, how big a step will he really take back from its damaging provisions on starter homes and forced council house sales?

When it comes to the Autumn Statement and housing white paper, which of the many groups lobbying for their own interests will come out on top?

When it comes to a housing crisis happening in the here and now, is building more homes in the future going to be enough?

We’ll start to find out some of the answers next month. For the moment, though, housing needs a minister prepared to engage with and talk about complex issues rather than one who speaks in easy solutions that translate into simple headlines.

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