Nothing is quite what it seems when Grant Shapps is announcing new policy. The man who gave us the name ‘affordable rent’ to describe unaffordable housing, and sustains a Twitter hashtag devoted to his creative use of statistics, #shappstistics , is also expert at diverting scrutiny by making ‘ad hominen’ attacks on anyone who is convenient, often the housing profession and equally often the ‘undeserving’ poor.
Last week’s allocations policy announcement, assessed by Monimbo on Red Brick, was a classic example of Mr Shapps at work. In his press release it says he wants ‘to end the perception that council houses are only available to those willing to play the system.’ I wonder who creates that perception if not him? Because it then says he wants ‘to reward ambition and achievement – ensuring homes go to the most in need such as hard working families – instead of those who merely know how to tick the most boxes.’ Now people working in allocations may be surprised to learn that they allocate homes to those who ‘merely’ tick boxes. And the tens of thousands of households waiting for a home will feel that their housing needs are being ridiculed and, if unemployed, that their economic status is being used to stigmatise them.
Housing allocations is an immensely complex area where a lot of legislation, case law, and local rules have to be taken into account. And that’s before the pressure starts over particular cases. As supply has diminished, and as applicants have become more desperate, the job has got harder. To mock it as a ‘box ticking’ exercise in this way is ignorant and crass, but it helps divert scrutiny of the new policy.
As night follows day, new starts of social rented homes have collapsed, new completions are about to collapse, and therefore lettings of new homes are about to collapse, making the system even more reliant on ‘re-lets’, leaving less to allocate to anybody. The Guidance does not address what to do at this point.
Mr Shapps also has a tendency to avoid difficult issues by repeating a previous unproven but well-rehearsed assertion. And so the Guidance evades the problems inherent in letting ‘affordable rent’ homes at up to 80% of market rents by repeating the silly claim that ‘Affordable Rent homes will be allocated in the same way as social rent properties’. However, there is a little get out: the ‘framework for allocations provides scope for local flexibility…..’.
It may of course be chance that the new policy announcement coincided with Armed Forces Day, but it gave Mr Shapps an opportunity to get good headlines in the media wrapped in the flag. In these moments he is so Churchillian: ‘Just as our brave troops answered their call of duty, councils will need to do the same, to ensure that heroes who want a home in their area will be at the top of local waiting lists.’
As a pre-emptive strike against another ad hominen attack I should make it clear that I have always supported priority for homeless ex-Armed Forces personnel, campaigned for this when I was at Shelter in the 1980s (when it was unfashionable), and welcomed the Labour Government’s moves to recognise the Armed Forces specifically in the homelessness priority groups and to change the local connection rules.
But the spin makes Mr Shapps’ new offer seem far more than it is, because the policy change – which I broadly welcome – is largely about ending barriers to being considered for housing and the priority attached to Armed Forces families once they have been given status in a ‘reasonable preference’ category. They are not being given an absolute priority to be pushed to the front of the general waiting list. And my reading of the new Guidance is that the homelessness duty to an Armed Forces family could be discharged through an offer of private rented accommodation just like everyone else. Being offered an unaffordable ‘affordable rent’ home may not help at all. And, as the Chair of the Army Families Federation said: “It’s a good gesture….. But if there are no houses available, it doesn’t matter what priority you have.”
And proof that Red Brick has influence in Government – the online version of the Guidance has been amended to add the crucial missing word ‘billion’. Amongst other things, our blogger Monimbo is an excellent proofreader.