The housing minister can make 10 policy announcements before breakfast but nothing can disguise the fact that he is incapable of delivering on any of it, says Nick Raynsford
Most people would agree that the key characteristic of successful ministers is their ability to deliver results. Sadly this is not the measure often used in the political world to judge their effectiveness. A good performance in the House of Commons or on the Today programme still counts for far more to those who shape ministerial career prospects (whether in the media or the party leader’s office) than the outcomes they achieve. Indeed, in many policy fields, not least those that depend on construction activity, the outcome is often only seen long after the responsible minister has moved on.
The number of families unable to find a home they can afford to buy or rent is enormous and homelessness is rising alarmingly
This unfortunate tendency to judge ministers on what they say rather than on what they achieve is reinforced by misguided confidence that making an announcement is the same as securing an outcome. It isn’t. In most cases it takes a great deal of time and hard work to translate policy statements into practical results on the ground.
Many grand announcements are followed by a painful period in which civil servants try to work out how to make the policy work. In many cases the conclusion is that the policy
is unworkable, and after a discreet period of silence, or an abortive implementation, it is quietly allowed to die.
These thoughts have been prompted by the extraordinary gap between rhetoric and reality in the case of this government’s housing policy. If one were to judge performance on the basis of ministerial statements and announcements, housing minister Grant Shapps would be top of the class. Barely a day goes by without a new policy or ministerial announcement flowing out of the Communities and Local Government department, each one promising more and better outcomes for homeowners, tenants and the homeless. Piece together all the verbiage and you would have to conclude that we are living in a golden age for housing.
The reality could not be more different. Almost all the indicators of performance are telling the same story. We are neither planning nor building anywhere near the number of homes required, and housing output is at a historically low level. The number of families unable to find a home they can afford to buy or rent is enormous and homelessness is rising alarmingly.
And this is before the impact of the cuts to social housing investment and housing benefit begin to bite seriously.
So what about those ministerial announcements promising a better tomorrow? Six months ago we were promised that government-backed mortgage indemnity guarantees would unlock the private market by allowing first-time buyers to get high loan-to-value mortgages. Today we know that officials are struggling to keep the scheme alive in the face of widespread lender scepticism while the housing market continues to bump along the bottom. A year ago we were promised that the New Homes Bonus would incentivise councils to grant planning permission for more homes. Today we know that despite millions spent and committed to the New Homes Bonus, planning consents for new housing are at
the lowest level ever - just 115,000 in 2011.
The tendency to judge ministers on what they say is reinforced by misguided confidence that making an announcement is the same as securing an outcome. It isn’t.
Only 18 months ago we were promised that the new “affordable rent” model would generate many more homes for those needing subsidised housing from councils and housing associations. Today we know that new affordable housing starts have collapsed.
As the evidence mounts that the supply of affordable and social housing is woefully inadequate, the minister’s response is not to address the real problem and reconsider the deep cuts in the Homes and Communities Agency’s budget for social housing investment. Instead he is launching yet another political initiative - greatly increased discounts for the Right to Buy, the policy that so depleted the social housing stock in the eighties and nineties.
Perhaps most curious of all is his claim that every property sold will be replaced on a one-for-one basis, though he is not offering any funding to make good the 50% discount which will be available to buyers. I know no serious practitioner involved with social housing who believes this can be delivered.
How much longer will we have to go on before the media and Downing Street recognise that whatever the messenger says, the policies are not working?
Nick Raynsford MP is a former Labour construction minister