"Beds in sheds" shouldn't distract us from the real housing crisis

The coalition's cuts to capital spending are decimating the house building sector.

In recent years, housing campaigners have repeatedly tried to draw attention to what they invariably describe as a "housing crisis". Even think tanks are not immune from making such a claim. However, the reaction from most of the media, the political class and (let’s be frank) the public is largely a collective shrug of the shoulders. In fact, while campaigners desperately try to highlight the perils of house building dropping to historically low levels, the issue which really grabs the spotlight is defence of the greenbelt from the opponents of new housing developments.

The difficulty in drawing attention to the "housing crisis", which is not a far-fetched description, is that its impacts are invariably defuse and indirect. They emerge over time and are hard to isolate. An area becomes gradually less affordable, the chance of home ownership slips slowly over the horizon, overcrowding goes unnoticed behind closed doors, rents just keep on going up more than wages. The housing pressures facing people in different walks of life are often hugely significant to them, but never quite add up to a national inflection point. The sense that things can’t go on like this. That something must be done.

Then we realise that families are living in garden sheds, with no electricity or running water. People are cooking on open flames. One man died in a fire that started in the converted garage where he was living. The leader of Ealing Council thinks that perhaps 60,000 people are leaving in makeshift accommodation, outside of all proper planning and safety laws, in that one London borough alone. In Newham, people are paying £350 a month to rent out a shed in someone else’s back garden.

Pressures in the housing market are like a game of dominos, played with millions of tiles. The mild irritation of professional twenty-somethings who can’t afford to buy a flat eventually feeds through to the acute desperation of a family forced to live in cramped conditions or see most of their pay go straight to a landlord who has got them over a barrel. When the pressures rise and rise ad rise, as they have been in recent years, we end up with the appalling phenomena of "beds in sheds".

So the government is right to address this problem – and enforcement is certainly part of the solution. However, we won’t rid our society of this terrible scar unless we recognise it as the tip of a housing iceberg; the product of series of pressures building up over a long period of time. It certainly won’t do for the government to use today’s announcement as part of a co-ordinated attempt to deflect attention from the continued failure to meet its self-imposed immigration target. Migrants are among those caught up in this utterly intolerable situation, but "beds in sheds" is firmly an issue for Grant Shapps (at least for as long as he occupies his current job) not Damian Green.

Local authorities should be given the powers they need to take action against exploitative "landlords" who are profiting from human misery. But they also need the tools to really make a difference to housing in their area – or else all they will be able to do is shift problems around rather than solve them. They need to be able make the most of their social housing, with full scope over how it is allocated and the ability to borrow against its value. They need to be able to get the best deal possible for tenants and taxpayers from local private landlords, on issues like rents and standards. And, in an era of fiscal constraint, they need to be able to make strategic choices about public money spent on housing in their patch – 95 per cent of which is locked up in housing benefit, unable to be used for building new homes.

So far, the coalition government’s approach to housing policy has been the continuation of a generation of initiativitis, combined with the search for endless financial wheezes to get around the fact that its cuts to capital spending are decimating the house building sector. The scandal of "beds in sheds" should prompt us all to recognise that something has gone badly wrong with the direction of housing policy – not just give ministers something else to talk about the day after figures suggest their immigration policy is failing.

Graeme Cooke is Associate Director at IPPR

Housing minister Grant Shapps has given councils new powers to crack down on "beds in sheds". Photograph: Getty Images.

Graeme Cooke is Associate Director at IPPR

Show Hide image

Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories