"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

Getty
Show Hide image

Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.