Baroness Warsi has withdrawn from tonight's edition of Question Time. Rumours are currently flying as to whether this is as a result of Mehdi Hasan's interview with her in this week's NS (full version not yet online -- go and buy and issue of the magazine) , in which she controversially states that Tory losses in "at least three seats" at the last election were "based on electoral fraud... predominantly in the Asian community", or whether she in fact pulled out days before publication, as government spinners seem to be putting about at the moment.
She will be replaced on tonight's programme by Grant Shapps, Conservative MP for Welwyn Hatfield, Minister of State for Housing & Local Government, and Question Time novice. We can only imagine the commotion in his office right now as he tries to prepare to face Simon Hughes, Diane Abbott, David Starkey and Brian Cox at about four hours' notice.
Surely, he will be asked about Lady Warsi's absence, and in particular the identity of the three seats she names in the interview. But there are questions that need to be put to Shapps himself -- as housing minister, he is now responsible for ameliorating the ever-worsening crisis in the UK's housing sector.
The loss of council homes for life, the chronic shortage of affordable housing in every part of the UK, and his recent remarks on housing association salaries are all areas where Shapps should be grilled.
But perhaps most important to pin down is the effect of the planned council tax freeze on new houses, or the New Homes Bonus scheme, as it has been called. Toby Thomas over at Left Foot Forward reports that shadow housing minister John Healey, in his speech to the Labour Party conference today, has once again strongly criticised this particular policy, arguing that it will in fact result in an increase in council tax, a disincentive for local authorities to build new houses, and an overall effect that some local authorities will end up paying the housing bills of others out of existing budgets (the New Homes Bonus will come out of existing grants). Toby writes:
Healey's analysis finds that 103 councils will suffer a fund-cut of on average £2 million each, helping to pay for the 222 councils who will gain by £400,000. Bigger towns are likely to lose out most, with Birmingham needing 8,500 homes a year built to avoid losing its grant, while Blaby in Leicestershire needs just 70.
This effect could in turn be heightened should local authorities choose not to embrace their newly-devolved role as the lead agency for house-building in their area. In an interview I did last week with Sir Bob Kerslake, incoming permanent secretary at Communities and Local Government and currently chief executive of the Homes and Communities Agency, he expressed the hope that "forward-looking" local authorities will seize on these incentives, but acknowledged that this will create inequality across the UK. He said:
"You can work with local authorities and show them potential, and even trade off one benefit of housing with another benefit, but in teh end I thnk if they set their face against it then they have to realise that different places will end up in different situations... That is the reality of looking backward."
Perhaps Grant Shapps will be able to shed some light this evening on what people stuck in poor quality housing who happen to live in a backward looking local authority should do to improve their situation, when faced with the reality of the arbitrary inequality created by such "big society" devolution.