When the housing minister’s in a hole he should stop digging

By Monimbo

Red Brick reported earlier in the week on the letter sent by Jack Dromey to the UK Statistics Authority, criticising Grant Shapps’ use of housing statistics.  The minister’s response, which accuses Dromey of indulging in an ‘incomprehensible rant’, suggests that Mr Shapps might not have been deterred by the shadow minister’s warning. His rather cavalier approach to figures is revealed again in his reply.

The main statistics the minister deploys in his defence come from his favourite bête noir, the housing market renewal programme.  Through this, he says, Labour ‘… bulldozed 10,000 homes, whilst only replacing 1,000. So just to be clear, no one did more to destroy our nation’s homes since the Luftwaffe bombs of World War II.’

Let’s take a look at whether his new statistics stand up.  His quip about the Luftwaffe is easy to dismiss, because Mr Shapps seems to have forgotten the post-war slum clearance programme which was run by both Labour and Conservative governments.  By 1960 it had led to half a million homes being demolished and in total some 1½ million were cleared (according to Steve Merrett’s Owner-Occupation in Britain).  I haven’t checked how many houses were demolished by the Luftwaffe but I think we can safely accuse the minister of mild exaggeration when he compares housing market renewal to German bombers.

In looking at the detailed figures on what housing market renewal achieved, it is extremely important to point out (which of course the minister doesn’t) that it was intended to be a 15-year programme which (thanks to him and the Chancellor) was closed down after only nine.  Combined with the post-credit-crunch recession (OK, we know that’s supposed to be Labour’s fault), this badly affected the number of new homes the housing market renewal pathfinders eventually delivered.  A number of schemes where houses were demolished or earmarked for demolition never resulted in replacement housing being built.

Mr Shapps knows this is the case, as he found a very modest amount of extra funding (£35 millions) for the five pathfinders worst affected.  He then got into a spot of bother when it emerged that the pathfinders planned to use this money to demolish about 5,000 houses.  This, however, was hardly surprising as they had been left with blighted, half-empty streets when the original programme was curtailed – as this Guardian photo gallery showed.

But I digress.  The claim is that Labour’s programme demolished 10,000 homes and only built 1,000.  The most authoritative recent assessment of the programme’s results was the report (pdf) The Housing Market Renewal Programme in England: development, impact and legacy by several leading academic experts, commissioned by the pathfinders.  This showed, using official statistics, that up to 2009/10 the programme had cleared 27,679 houses and built 13,542 new ones. So even a curtailed programme had achieved a 50% replacement rate (rather than 10% as the minister claimed).  More significantly, it had refurbished no less than 100,852 homes.  As the report says, it is clear that ‘refurbishment activity formed by far the main output’.  The authors went on to analyse the balance of clearance and new build in each area, and found that it was positive (more houses built than demolished) in four of the pathfinders, and only in one (East Lancashire) was there a large imbalance.  (Anyone familiar with the housing market in that area will not be surprised at this.)

Furthermore, the authors looked at sales of newly built homes in the pathfinder areas that weren’t funded by the programme itself.  They showed that the total supply of new homes was actually 32,000 over the period, slightly more than the level of demolition.  In contrast, in the decade before the programme began, the pathfinder areas had suffered a net loss of 23,000 homes.  As the report says, ‘turning around housing stock decline in these areas represents a tremendous achievement’ of the pathfinder programme.

It’s unlikely that either Red Brick or Jack Dromey will have much influence on the minister’s use of housing statistics.  But when they are repeated in the press, perhaps journalists should first check what he says against the latest reputable research, including his department’s own official figures.

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2 Responses to When the housing minister’s in a hole he should stop digging

  1. Bill Peters says:

    Monimbo’s excellent response highlights the difficulties Mr Shapps has with facts and the apparent inability of the media to recognise spin! On the question of the number of homes destroyed by enemy action the figure cited in Alan Holmans authoritative Historical Statistics of Housing in Britain published by CCHPR, University of Cambridge is 218,000. Indeed Part B of this report brings together a wealth of time series data on the stock of dwellings – useful information when we start to think more clearly about current output and not least the ticking time bomb of the New Homes bonus. Mr Shapps might like to buy a copy!

  2. cblmeister says:

    Shapps was quoting this housing loss “statistic” on Radio 4 this morning and went completely unchallenged.

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