Gove’s confession only goes so far

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

If it’s broken, who broke it? If there were mistakes and errors, who made them?

It was quite an Easter week for Michael Gove as he moved into confessional mode first in a think tank report and then in a Today programme interview.

‘That the current housing model– from supply to standards and the mortgage market – is broken, we can all agree,’ the housing secretary wrote in an introduction to the report from Bright Blue and Shelter. ‘That change is necessary is undeniable. We are bringing about change – and we are determined to see it through.’

And, asked on the Today programme on Thursday (listen from 08:12), if he had gone through ‘an awakening’ on housing, he said that: ‘The thing that affected me most was the Grenfell fire. What the Grenfell inquiry, in particular, has subsequently brought to light were a chain of errors. I’m very happy to reiterate that there were some mistakes and errors that were made not just by the coalition government but by governments before which contributed to social tenants not getting the support that they deserve, not having their voices heard. And so change had to come and we are delivering that change.’

Note that Mr Gove leaves us with the same key message: others made the mistakes that broke the housing model and now he is here to fix things.

Some of what he’s saying is quite true – he has reversed much of the deregulation of the past – but the interview still begged more questions.

What exactly was he admitting to – and how much of the blame was he really taking for himself and his Conservative colleagues?

After all, he was there around the Cabinet table when Grant Shapps and Eric Pickles were slashing the social housing budget and introducing many of the changes he has just reversed.

The context was a series of reports that the Today programme ran all week about the lonely death of Sheila Seleoane in her Peabody flat in south London that featured interviews with neighbours, with Peabody and finally with Mr Gove.

He said that the case indicates ‘a wider culture of neglect’. While it was hard to generalise from one individual case (which did not seem to stop him), it raised issues of loneliness and isolation and specific housing questions about regulation, the values of housing associations and support for tenants.

‘Each of these individual cases are tragedies. What they all point us towards, however, is what we’ve had in the past of social housing landlords treating tenants with a degree of distance and hauteur and in some cases neglect that is unacceptable.’

Presenter Nick Robinson asked him: ‘You’ve been very critical of giant housing corporations that struggle to have human contact with tenants at all, with one manager for 1,000 tenants. Are you saying we, we politicians, we ministers created something of the climate you are criticising?’

Tellingly, Mr Gove avoided the question and responded to the statement: ‘Well, yes, anyone in social housing should have not just a roof over their head but someone to care for them and that roof needs to be secure, warm and decent and that care and attention needs to be hard wired into the way in which the housing association works. There’s been a culture in some housing associations that has tended to put the black and white figures on the accounts ahead of the heart and soul engagement with the residents.’

So was it a mistake to so squeeze the finances of housing associations that they feel they need to get bigger and bigger and fail to look after their tenants?

‘No I disagree with that – I think it’s entirely possible for housing associations, and many do, both to provide new homes and ensure that the homes for which they’re currently responsible are safe, warm and decent.’

Mr Gove admitted there was a need for ‘a programme of rebuilding’ as social homes built in the 60s and 70s neared of their lives but argued there were lessons to learn about the quality of what we build and pointed out that investment at Grenfell has actually put tenants’ lives at risk.

True, you can invest badly, said Nick Robinson, but if housing associations felt the need to have one manager to a thousand tenants, doesn’t that mean that ‘more money, much more money will need to be spent on social housing?’

‘Well there are two things. Firstly there is no excuse for neglecting individuals who should be your first care. Resource is not an excuse. We saw that in Rochdale and it was certainly the case in Kensington and Chelsea with Grenfell as well. Now, do we also need to build more social homes as well? Yes. And That’s why we’ve taken steps to increase the amount of money councils can keep when they sell social homes so they can reinvest in new homes and we have an £11.5bn Affordable Homes Programme.’

All of these answers have elements of truth but all of them are partial.

Who was it that squeezed the finances of council housing and forced housing associations to become more commercial in the 1980s and 1990s? Who created the conditions for the mega-mergers of the last 20 years? 

Who cut investment by two-thirds in 2010, cut rents in 2016 and encouraged landlords to sweat their assets and do more with less?

Who was it that denigrated ‘sink estates’? Who wanted to extend the right to buy and force councils to sell their vacant stock?

Who divided society into ‘strivers’ and ‘scroungers’ and introduced welfare ‘reform’ and the bedroom tax?

All of this was said and done by people sat across the Cabinet table from Mr Gove.

If he was naming and shaming social landlords, asked Nick Robinson, did Conservative ministers need to take a share of that shame?

‘Well I’ve already said that we have a responsibility towards those in social housing to do better. I think in particular that what really matters is a) an analysis of the housing market overall in order to work out what it is that needs to change and b) action. And I believe in the course of the last 18 months there’s been more action to support people in social housing under this government than for decades.’

That was it for the interview but Mr Gove’s Easter week still left lots of questions hanging.

Take that ‘broken’ housing model, for example: housing ministers have been saying that for years and telling us that the answer is to build more homes.

But while Mr Gove pays lip service to the manifesto target of 300,000 new homes a year, his own actions are achieving the opposite.

Thanks to his surrender to backbench rebels, 55 councils are already pulling back from local plans – while the number of housing projects receiving planning permission is lower than it has been for 20 years.

If there is support for people in social housing, why are we building so few new social homes? Allowing councils to spend all of their Right to Buy receipts over the next two years is a welcome move but does not change what happened over the last 13 years let alone the last 40. And there will still be a net loss of stock.

If the focus is (rightly) on support for social tenants, why is there no government funding to regenerate those estates that are coming to the end of their life? Why is the decarbonisation work to deliver homes that are warmer and cheaper to heat only just getting off the ground?

Fixing the errors of the past is a promising start but rewriting history creates a convenient smokescreen for the mistakes of the present.


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