Time for a Department of Work and Housing?
Published by Jon Land for 24dash.com in Housing and also in Central Government
Time for a Department of Work and Housing?
The two government departments whose policies impact directly on the housing sector haven’t got a clue what they are doing but for very different reasons, writes 24housing Editor Jon Land.
If the Government’s recent housing stimulus package has that familiar whiff of desperation about it you can attribute it to two things. The first is that it has lost the plot where economic growth is concerned and is now clinging to the hope that housebuilding may prove the panacea. The second is that it has never found the plot where housing is concerned.
To be fair – as the industry’s leading bodies have been quick to point out – any government focus on housing has to be welcomed. In recent times, Cameron and Clegg have donned hard hats for housing-related press calls, while the phrase ‘housing crisis’ has finally been accepted as a fact of British life rather than being dismissed as a cunning ruse used by housing associations and housebuilders to con the public into thinking the country needs more homes.
But acknowledging that there is a problem with our housing market and offering platitudinous soundbytes about tackling the issues is very different from a truly strategic approach that embraces the essential role of all types of housing tenure.
Last week’s housing package was the latest in a long line of apparently random and fragmented announcements that never truly get to grips with the fundamental issues of supply, finance and affordability. Serving up housing policy on the hoof has become the preserve of the Coalition but it has served one politician very well – despite the fact that history will judge his tenure as housing minister as a failure because he’s walked away from a job half done.
There is not one single aspect of housing policy that Grant Shapps can feel proud – housebuilding of all types has collapsed, homelessness has spiralled, the housing benefit bill continues to rise and housing waiting lists are growing.
He will point to Affordable Rent as a slow-burning success story in straitened times that will start to have an impact just before the next General Election, but it’s hardly a showstopper in terms of build numbers and has put the screws on housing association finances to such an extent it is unlikely to be repeated in its current format.
Like the Government he serves, Shapps’ biggest problem is that there is no coherent strategy underpinning anything he does – other than personal gain. He is an opportunist, a chancer, (a midnight dancer?) but as long as he continues to make headlines and raise his own profile, he won’t care a jot.
The lack of strategic thinking coming from Eland House is in stark contrast, however, to the hotbed of intellectual thought over at Caxton House – home of the Department for Work and Pensions.
Safely shrouded from the real world, Iain Duncan Smith and Lord David Freud continue to work on Universal Credit. Unlike the short-term ‘wins’ for housing, UC has had a longer gestation period than an African elephant. Its planning has been so long-term that the original concept was drawn up under the previous Labour government. For IDS and Lord Freud its delivery will mark the pinnacle of their careers, the moment years of head-in-the-clouds thinking and ideological soul searching come together to cure this country’s money-sapping welfare system while ensuring thousands of feckless poor people are forced to find work at the same time.
As we are becoming increasingly aware, however, Universal Credit is a car-crash waiting to happen. A policy originally designed to simplify the benefits system has become so complicated that it will be launched and in use before those responsible for building it even know how it works.
At the same time, the DWP is responsible for wiping billions from the benefits bill by simply capping the amount of money given to claimants and coming up with ingenuous new taxes involving spare bedrooms.
The fact that all this is being done at a time when 2.59 million people are unemployed is truly a sight to behold and one can only imagine what the outcome will be. And there’s no point asking the DWP, because it doesn’t know.
So there we have it, the two government departments whose policies impact directly on the housing sector haven’t got a clue what they are doing but for very different reasons. The result, of course, is that we are helplessly caught in the middle of this muddled thinking and it will be housing providers and their residents who cop it during the next 12 months.
If the Government really cared about housing, a simple solution would be to merge the two departments together into, say, a Department for Work and Housing. Instead of the disconnected housing and welfare policies that are currently squeezing providers’ revenue streams from both sides, there could be a more coherent approach that attempts to reconcile the capital grant/personal subsidy conundrum that results in more affordable homes being built and fewer people falling into poverty and homelessness.
An edited version of this blog appears on the Guardian Housing Network.