The Garrulous Gavin Barwell

18 Oct 2016|Idle Speculation

The role of Housing Minister does not generally seem to attract the outspoken. It would take a pretty dedicated housing wonk to recall all of the nine individuals to have held the role in the past decade – let alone to identify the distinctive contribution to housing policy made by, say, Kris Hopkins. Say Nothing Newsworthy seems to have been the unofficial departmental motto.

But Gavin Barwell seems determined to be different. He seems positively to relish the license to say whatever he pleases which comes with Theresa May’s slightly semi-detached relationship to the manifesto upon which the Government was elected a little over a year ago. I therefore thought it worthwhile to have a go at parsing some of the things he has said in the hope of gleaning some idea of the new minister.

As it turned out he used his very first speech on housing policy a month ago to announce that the Government would soften its focus on homeownership. Indeed, he mused, perhaps the definition of Starter Homes might be amended to include housing available at a discounted rent… How liberating to be able to fillet one’s flagship manifesto commitment in this way! After all, Starter Homes are a home ownership policy designed to reverse the declining rate of home ownership. They certainly aren’t affordable housing as currently consitituted – which was precisely why the Government recognised that it would have to change the definition of affordable housing in the NPPF in order to accommodate them. But, if the new minister is to be believed and the definition of Starter Homes is to be changed to incorporate housing for discounted rent then what we’d be seeing is the definition of Starter Homes being changed to incorporate Affordable Housing rather than the other way around. Presto change-o! What’s old is new again. At any rate, it would certainly make it easier to hit that target of 200,000 Starter Homes by the end of the parliament.

Then there was the mysterious tilt at Jeremy Corbyn’s policy of delivering 500,000 Council homes over the course of a Parliament. Other Tories might have questioned the deliverability of such an ambitious target and the hefty costs involved. Mr Barwell damned it as “divisive”. Apparently, Council housing is divisive because the families who take up the tenancies will be locked out of the magic money tree that is the UK’s housing market. “You are going to have a group that either inherits property or gets well enough paid jobs that they can get on the housing ladder and they are going to have an asset that appreciates. Hopefully it won’t appreciate as rapidly as in recent years, but it will appreciate, and you’re going to have another chunk of people that won’t have that. That is going to widen the gap between the haves and the have nots.”

So much to unpack there. First of all, the assumption that prices will continue ever upwards – not as fast as previously perhaps but upwards. Secondly, the failure to appreciate that wealth which is locked up in one’s home is about as illiquid and inaccessible as its possible for wealth to be. It’s like having a valuable liver – sure, you could sell it for a fortune but then you wouldn’t have a liver. But, most important of all, if equity acquisition is so important, then we’re back to ownership being the only answer. Because private tenants are every bit as excluded from the free money as Council tenants are – the only difference is that they have to pay higher, less regulated rents, which hinders their ability to save up wealth that they can actually use. And yet, the new Minister is actively encouraging the development of housing for private rent. “We need to build more homes of every single type and not focus on one single tenure… Recent growth in the bespoke [private] rental market has been impressive, but this progress must be expanded.” It’s hard not to conclude that Mr Barwell’s problem with Council housing isn’t the fact that it is available to rent – it’s simply the whiff of socialism to which he objects. That too marks something of a departure.

Let’s not forget that, in the distant decades of the mid twentieth century, the Conservatives were as enthusiastic as Labour about building Council homes. When they soured on them it was only partly because they wanted to create a property owning democracy, it was also because they instinctively disliked the idea of tenants in thrall to monopolistic municipal landlords. That is why they continued to support the provision of social rented housing by Housing Associations. More recently, the Conservatives’ attitude to social housing has tended to be characterised by reluctant hand-wringing rather than outright disdain; that low council rents for life are the sort of blunt, inefficient social programmes that – alas – we can no longer afford in our age of austerity. When Affordable Rented housing was introduced, the options appraisal the Government carried out noted that the new tenure wouldn’t provide the same degree of benefit to its tenants as Social Rented housing did, that it would raise the Housing Benefit bill and might create welfare “traps”. Even so, the new tenure was justified on the basis that, in a world where it was no longer possible to provide capital funding for social housing, it was better to have a greater number of less intensively subsidised homes than a smaller number of more intensively subsidised homes. Mr Barwell’s comments about Council housing – in the context of his support for other rented tenures – suggests that he just doesn’t like Council housing per se. If true it is a pretty extraordinary view for a housing minister to hold at this point in our on-going affordability crisis.

And finally there were his widely reported comments to conference about his support for “innovative” house builders like Pocket Living: a company which delivers the sort of homes young people can afford through their flexible* interpretation of minimum size standards. By means of a gentle sleight of hand, a 400sqft, one bedroom apartment can be made available for a mere £250,000!

I have no particular animus against Pocket Living. In London’s crazy housing market, they may well be a necessary evil and their developments seem thoughtfully designed but the idea that this model is an exciting innovation that is worthy of emulation rather than a pointed reminder of an on-going failure is crazy. Moreover, the space standards which Pocket Living has been permitted to interpret so flexibly were the Nationally Described Space Standards (2015) which are included in the current London Plan (2016). Which is to say that they were standards drawn up by a Conservative Government and implemented in the capital by a Conservative Mayor in order to address the fact that new homes built in this country are, on average, the smallest in Europe.

So, is there a general theme here? If there is, it’s perhaps that Mr Barwell is still finding his feet. He did not cite housing as an area of interest prior to his appointment, there’s a great deal to get to grips with and he clearly has all sorts of people bending his ear (intriguingly, Sajid Javid was also photographed in a Pocket Living hard hat and high viz vest in a press release at conference time). It also seems clear that the Tories still consider increasing housing supply to be the single most important aspect of housing policy. They presumably hope that affordability will sort itself out naturally as soon as the supply issue is settled. It would also seem that the new minister shares his colleagues’ instinctive distrust of the power of Government (and especially Local Government). It will be interesting to see how that ends up squaring with the Prime Minister’s recent determination to make more use of that power.

* To be fair, I should point out that, at 400sqft Pocket’s apartments do not necessarily breach the space standards, but they are right on the minimum size for a one bedroom apartment for single occupancy. The problem is not that the homes are automatically too small, the problem is that, being homes for sale, there is no way to ensure that they will be subject to single occupancy – and when a second person moves in, they would become too small.

Go back to Blog & News