SHADOW housing secretary John Healey MP proved both pitying and scathing about the Prime Minister and her party’s record yesterday, saying the Conservatives in Government are unable to fix the housing crisis.
He began his speech at the Chartered Institute of Housing’s conference and exhibition in Manchester, much like Theresa May before him with a little humour, but not so self-deprecating: “It is good to have the Prime Minister do the warm-up act for you,” he said.
The Prime Minister had taken to the stage in the session before Healey was scheduled to appear; a last minute addition the programme. Her speech offered little in the way of anything new, and much of it was the kind of policy announcements you might expect a housing minister — not a prime minister — to make.
This wasn’t lost on Healey, who said he found the “end of days” Prime Minister’s performance a “sad speech in many ways”.
“So little to show for three years in Downing Street,” he said. “During those three years in Downing Street, we’ve seen rough sleeping rise, we’ve seen the number of families with kids in particular in temporary accommodation rise about 124,000, and we’ve seen — whatever she said about the importance of social housing — the level of new Government backed social rented homes built last year fall to 961.”
He accused the Government of offering plenty in the way of consultations but offering little in the way of legislation.
“Even today, the Prime Minister was still only able to promise change in the future on building standards in social housing,” he said. He added: “People are fed up with ministers — even Prime Ministers — talking about what they are going to do to deal with housing problems.”
Brexit is no excuse for what he called the Government’s failure on housing, but in a reference to the current leadership contest to find May’s successor, he suggested that no matter who wins the keys to Number 10 “the prospects for housing as a priority in this Government is pretty bleak”.
Healey offered a bleak assessment of the Government’s record to date too: Homeownership in decline, citing nearly 900,000 fewer under-45s owning a home than they did in 2010. Furthermore, homelessness is higher, private rents have risen, along with the cost of living while wages have stagnated, and social housing delivery is at its lowest since the second world war.
“If this Conservative Government over those nine years had simply continued to build the same rate of social homes as in Labour’s last year [in government], we’d have in this country now almost 180,000 extra homes,” he said. “More than enough for every family in temporary accommodation, for every person sleeping rough on the streets, for every individual in every homeless hostel right across the country.”
He said of ministers “they simply don’t seem to get the depth and the breadth of the housing problems they need to fix, and they don’t get the scale of the action that is needed”.
He told the audience: “The arguments we are making together are winning and they are forcing ministers to change government policy, on the need for social housing, on legislation to outlaw lettings agents fees, on banning combustible cladding on highrise buildings, on lifting the borrowing cap to enable councils to borrow to build — but these are baby steps.”
He accused the Conservative party itself of being the biggest obstacle to the “radical reform” the Prime Minister had invoked in her speech.
The Government will make small changes, take little steps, Healey said, but ministers are “ideologically ill-equipped” to make the far-reaching policy changes needed to fix a broken housing market.
“This is not just a debate on policy; it’s a deep difference in basic beliefs about the respective roles of government and the market and in whose best interest each should operate,” he said.
Healey’s words might well have been a eulogy for the end of Theresa May’s time in office, an indictment of her party’s record in Government, too; with an election on the cards sooner or later, though, they also form something of a pitch for Labour to win. And then the real test for Healey would begin. That’s no joke.