Sidelining of tenants is part of a wider pattern

Whether you put it down to carelessness or couldn’t care less-ness, the inaction inside government inaction that has sparked open letter from A Voice for Tenants (AV4T) is symptomatic of a wider political paralysis.

As the group themselves point out, they are not representative of the eight million people living in social housing in England but they are the best we have until the government keeps the prime minister’s promise to bring tenants into the political process.

The letter is all the more effective for the contrast between its moderate language and its stark message that working behind the scenes has not produced results.

The only option left seems to be to embarrass the politicians into living up to what they have said over the last two years – accepting Inside Housing’s open invitation to a meeting seems the bare minimum they should do.

And there is a strikingly similar message in the Times this morning from Grenfell United, as it attacks ‘indifferent and incompetent’ ministers who took their ‘kindness as weakness’.

Two years of meetings have produced too little action, they say, with no progress on their call for a new model of housing regulator and thousands of people still living in ‘death traps’ with combustible cladding.

Grenfell and tenants were top of the agenda for the ministers in post at the time of the fire – the work of Alok Sharma and his civil servants is praised in the AVT letter – but have slipped down it as the months and now years have passed.

Three housing ministers later, Kit Malthouse, the current temporary incumbent, has plenty to say on twitter about new supply under the hashtag #morebetterfaster but has not mentioned tenants since the engagement events held with AVT’s help last October.

All this only reinforces the impression that the politicians at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) are engaged in doing just enough to look like they are doing something and no more than that.

As I’ve blogged before, this impression predates the current incumbents but it has come even more into focus in the last 12 months.

It applies most obviously the glacially slow progress made since last year’s green paper promised a new deal for social housing and asked whether there was ‘a need for a stronger representation for residents at a national level’.

The fact that the volunteers who have done more than anyone else to help that happen are not even able to afford train fares to meet in person is nothing short of a national embarrassment.

It continues with the stalling progress made on getting rid of combustible cladding on existing homes – work has only been completed on 6% of private blocks and the number with there are still 71 with no plan in place.

The message to private block owners that they should ‘do the right thing’ has always looked weak at best and has been dismissed as a ‘hollow threat’ by the owner of Northpoint in Bromley.

Local Conservative MP and former local government minister Bob Neill has called for direct funding from the government and last week attacked ‘a worrying complacency’ at the Treasury.

And the impression also extends to housing issues that go beyond those raised by the Grenfell Tower fire.

Take, for example, the leasehold scandal. In December 2017 former housing secretary Sajid Javid pledged to free leaseholders from ‘feudal practices’ in the leasehold market and tweeted that:

That promise has been steadily watered down as time went on – the ban only applies to most houses and ground rent was not set to zero when the details finally emerged – and last month Javid’s successor James Brokenshire unveiled that classic political device for dressing up inaction as action: a voluntary industry pledge.

An equally cunning but transparent device is to announce things in press releases to garner some favourable headlines and then quietly let them drift.

Which should suggest a need for caution among campaigners about the recent government announcement on ending Section 21.

Issuing a press release headlined ‘Government announces end to unfair evictions’ is not the same thing at all as actually doing it.

All this is happening in a political context that will be dominated by six more months of Brexit drift and infighting about the Tory leadership.

Most immediately, that means that the spending review that was set for the Autumn could be delayed.

That is the spending review, remember, that was meant to ‘end austerity’ and set departmental spending limits for three years from April 2020.

Delay could see departments forced to rely on existing budgets for another year, implying no extra money for new programmes and the extension of existing measures like the benefit freeze.

Just to sum up the priorities in our politics right now, the housing minister is in the news again this morning – but yet again for the fantasy Brexit compromise named after him rather than for anything to do with his day job.

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