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Interview: At home with John Healey MP

Dismayed at the way the country seems to have gone backwards since he held the housing portfolio in the last Labour Government, John Healey tells Mark Cantrell it’s time to generate some radical but credible thinking

 

The interview was in the bag, or so we thought, but then John Healey called back to offer some final thoughts. A politician’s desire to have the last word, maybe; a glimpse into the hold home ownership has on political thinking, almost certainly – but it’s good to cover the bases.

Critics might say that’s one problem with the current Government’s approach to housing: it’s skewed towards owning a home at the expense of other tenures. Healey, on the other hand, has earned himself a reputation as a champion of social housing in the years since he was Cabinet minister for housing in the last Labour Government, so it’s perhaps understandable that he wants to avoid any perception he’s tipping things too far the other way.

As he put it when he followed up the earlier discussion, he is “determined that Labour doesn’t lose sight of the aspiration to own a home”. That’s why, he explained, he commissioned Peter Redfern, of housebuilder Taylor Wimpey, to lead a review looking at how to boost home ownership – an attempt to discover ‘big ideas’ and prompt debate.

That’s not to say Healey is set to put social housing on a backburner now that he’s shadow housing and planning minister, as he had made clear. He outlined the work he did on social housing with the Smith Institute shortly after he was appointed to the role, and explained Labour is looking to “open up new debate” and foster “wider thinking” on all aspects of the housing crisis, but he was somewhat reticent to be pinned down on policies.

“We are half-way through the first year of a five-year Parliament. Now is not the time for detailed policy positions: it is the time to open up a much wider debate, with fresh ideas and big alternatives to what could be done in the future,” he said. “It’s clear what is being done now isn’t working. We require fresh ideas and big thinking. That [Smith Institute] report set out how we could by 2020 be building an extra 100,000 new council and housing association homes each year.

“It explained not just what could be done and how it could be done, but above all how it could be paid for. So I see my challenge as helping to lead that much bigger public debate and policy debate about what needs to be done in the future, and to make sure that the ideas that we contribute are radical, so they give people fresh hope that things can change, but they are also credible so that they are believable – so we don’t give false hope.”

Healey clearly sees little hope in Government policy – and its attitudes – as encapsulated in the Housing & Planning Bill. To say he is not impressed is perhaps putting it mildly.

“If you wanted legislation and a plan to start to deal with the deep housing crisis and cost-of-housing crisis we’ve got in this country, that plan would look almost diametrically different to what is [contained] in the Housing & Planning Bill,” he said.

“There is so little in that Bill that will do anything other than make the housing pressures people face worse. It will lead to a huge loss of affordable homes, both to rent and to buy; it will put an end to the building of new social housing, and almost an end to a range of affordable housing.

“I fear it will prove a huge let down to the people that ministers claim they want to help, which are those people on modest incomes, working, who find that first foot into the housing market is beyond them, because Starter Homes are likely to be still beyond reach to most people in most areas on average incomes.”

Housing has clearly got under Healey’s skin, he admits, and is amply demonstrated by the interventions he has made in the debates around housing since Labour returned to Opposition in 2010. “I was new to the housing field in 2009 when I was housing minister, and I think it is hard to work in the field and not be gripped by how it feels,” he said. “When you’re an elected MP as I have been for nearly 20 years now, many of the problems people face either directly or indirectly have their roots in poor housing; housing they can’t really afford, or can’t get access to. I’ve not been one of those ministers that’s been appointed to a brief, moved on and left the field behind. But I have to say, picking it up in detail like this five years on, it dismays me how we seem to have gone backwards on every front in the last five years.

“Home ownership has fallen. The level of housebuilding in this country, even in the best of the last five years in 2014 was still lower than the worst year in 13 years of Labour, in the depths of the global financial crisis and recession in 2009. Homelessness is rising rapidly. Rents are soaring, and the Housing Benefit bill, despite some punishing cuts – like the Bedroom Tax – on people in the last five years, is still relentlessly rising year on year.”

The problem is politics, Healey says, which is perhaps a tad ironic given he’s a politician. “In my view, two things are driving this,” he said. “The first, this is legislation driven by Conservative politics rather than good housing policy, and linked to that, I think, is a deepening political panic about their failure on housing.

“First, how far short of their pledges on building new homes they are: they’ve pledged a million new homes over this Parliament – 200,000 a year – and their best year, 2014, was 117,720. Second, I think there is a political panic about home ownership. This is the politics of the Tory Party talking about home ownership to the exclusion of anything else.

“It’s an important part of the picture, but they talk about it to the exclusion of everything else and yet home ownership has gone down each and every year in the last five years. Young people have been especially hard hit. The numbers of young people under 35 owning a home has dropped by a fifth and so the political concern has led to bad policy and bad legislation.”

The Housing & Planning Bill continues to make its way through Parliament at the time of writing, but Healey’s point about the Government’s blinkered focus on home ownership has been rather reinforced since he spoke to us, courtesy of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement – a speech Healey later dismissed as “bluster”.

As it is, Government’s policy generally points to a bleak outcome in Healey’s assessment: “What’s clear over the next five years is that newbuild social housing will be very rare,” he said. “It will have no backing from Government. It will have no policy or legislative support, and everything about this Government’s policy will drive housing associations away from social housing.

“We need more housing of all types right across the piece. I have always argued that the huge housing challenge that we face requires all parts of the sector to do much more: private housing developers, councils, and housing associations. We face five years where all the chips are placed on private, open market housing for sale and for rent – and that is going to make the housing pressures for many people in many areas much worse.”

 

This interview first appeared in the December/January 2016 print edition of Housing magazine

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