On Thursday Kris Hopkins, the Housing Minister, published a post at the Spectator entitled This government is solving Britain’s homes crisis. The post was designed to coincide with the publication of statistics about the unlovely, and largely unloved, Help to Buy scheme. When I saw the post I was intrigued. It seemed, superficially, to be making a rather implausible claim. I anticipated an orgy of spin and statistical chicanery.
As it turns out I wasn’t too far off the mark.
I don’t think there is a huge amount to be gained by providing a detailed critique of Hopkins’ claims for the impact of the Coalition’s housing policy. Suffice to say that if you mostly talk in terms of percentage changes and pick some of the lowest recorded levels of housing supply in history as your denominator then you can make just about anything look good.
Clearly a revival in house building is underway, and that it without doubt a good thing. But it is not sensible to get too carried away just yet. We’re still a long way short of the levels of housing supply that will make a major dent in the housing problem.
Perhaps more interesting are some of the rhetorical tactics employed. Some old favourites were reprised, but some new ones were in evidence.
We are wearily familiar with the Conservatives laying the blame for the public sector deficit at Labour’s door. But apparently now it was not only “Labour’s financial crash” but also “Labour’s housing crash”. I mean, really, guys, let’s try to be serious for a moment. In the run up to the crash the Conservatives were more likely to be arguing for less regulation of the financial sector than warning of the dangers of a housing bubble fuelled by easy credit. And the financial crisis was hardly home grown.
We might all agree that much of pre-2007 policy was unwise. But let’s not pretend the Conservatives weren’t on board with it. And don’t pretend that we’re not replaying some of the same moves during the current housing boom. It is true that the Bank of England, through the Financial Policy Committee, now has macroprudential tools aimed at dampening housing market volatility. But they have yet to feel sufficiently exercised by the situation to deploy them.
Hopkins also offers us the odd statement that might sound stirring, but on reflection are more than a little bizarre. For example:
Politicians on all sides recognise this problem, but it is this Conservative-led government which is taking action.
Well, yes. But that’s because you are the Government and therefore in the position to take action.
And there are some strategic silences. In relation to the rationale for Help to Buy:
With the average house price in UK now at £252,000, we recognise that a £50,000 deposit for someone on average salary of £26,000 is a tall order. An injection of capital is needed …
Well, yes. Help with a deposit is one thing. But what about ongoing affordability? Even if the Government handed a household on average salary the £50k with no strings attached they’d still be looking at a mortgage of £202,000 – which is more than seven and a half times their income. Are we saying that is sensible? We have to assume from Hopkins’ silence on the matter that we are.
Towards the end of the piece Hopkins argues:
Help to Buy is just one of several interventions we’ve put in place to support the housing market. Others include the delivery of 170,000 affordable homes since 2010; building twice as many council houses in four years [as] Labour did in 13; and investing more than half a billion pounds to support SME builders.
That might all sound great to the unwary reader – which is presumably the intention. Of course, 170,000 homes since 2010 is not actually very many. And, as I and many other housing commentators have argued many times, this oft-repeated statement empties the word “affordable” of all meaning. Indeed, the debate in housing circles at the moment is rather more about whether we’re seeing the not-particularly-slow death of genuinely affordable social housing as a result of this government’s policies.
But I really love the point about building more council housing in four years than Labour did in 13. It may well be factually accurate, but it’s just such a breathtakingly partisan representation of the situation.
Firstly, the numbers involved remain pretty tiny in the cosmic scheme of things. It is positive, but hardly something that can sensibly be considered as a major contribution to solving the housing crisis. Second, under Labour new social housing was almost exclusively built by housing associations not councils – and on a much larger scale than is happening under the Coalition. A fairer comparison would be the total new supply across the two sectors. Third, Labour adopted the housing association approach largely as a continuation of the policy framework set in place by the previous Conservative government, which had killed council house building in the early 1990s through its reform of local government finance. Fourth, the recent increase in council house building has happened largely because of local discretion opened up by the localisation of the housing revenue account. That is a policy change the Coalition made. But in doing so they largely implemented a set of proposals developed under Labour before the 2010 election.
Of course, Mr Hopkins may know no better. He has been part of the housing policy world for less than a year. Perhaps he is just parroting a version of history that he has been handed. Perhaps he had no input into text published under his name. Some of us have, on the other hand, been knee-deep in English housing policy for more than two decades.
I continue to be amazed at the way in which parts of this Government are not only willing to spin to the point of utter hypocrisy and to bend statistics out of shape for political advantage, but to do so shamelessly. Of course, IDS’s DWP is by far the worst offender. But others, such as Grayling’s MoJ, could give them a run for their money. The sorts of diversionary tactics in which CLG engage are almost quaintly modest in comparison.
The other problem is that while the government is repeatedly called out on these practices they don’t seem to be paying a price. That hypocrisy and dishonesty are simply standard operating procedures in the world of post-truth politics is an idea that is now well-embedded in the popular consciousness. So we all pay the price – the reputation of politics as a whole is degraded.