Not for the likes of you. Image: Getty.
Show Hide image

What use is a housing minister who doesn’t want to build housing?

Brandon Lewis's job is to ensure this country has enough houses. Isn't it?

Imagine a defence minister who questioned whether it was worth our bothering with an army. Or a business one who said things like, "If anything, I think this country has too many companies." The thought is absurd.

And yet, it seems, if you're housing minister, it's quite okay to go round suggesting that don't really need to build any more houses. We have enough of them already, don't we? Must have, all those people are clearly living somewhere.

Yesterday saw the announcement of the Wolfson Prize for economics, which this year was awarded to the best plan to revamp the idea of garden cities for the 21st century. The award is backed by Policy Exchange, a think tank not known for its rampant socialism, and its choice of subject is recognition of the fact that the housing crisis is one of the most serious economic threats currently facing this country.

In the event, the prize went to Urbed, a Manchester-based consultancy, for "Uxcester Garden City": a template showing how a generic city of 200,000 could become one of 400,000. To show how this would work in practice, it included detailed proposals for what this would mean for Oxford. (You can read more about this on the New Statesman's new sister site CityMetric.)

The plan is no doubt imperfect, because isn't everything. But it makes a big deal of building new homes near jobs, of introducing new public transport networks when you do it, and of retaining plenty of accessible green space so that Oxfordshire doesn't end up looking like Newark, New Jersey.

Can you guess how Brandon Lewis, the man tasked with solving Britain's housing crisis, responded?

We do not intend to follow the failed example of top-down eco-towns from the last [Labour] administration. We are committed to protecting the green belt from development as an important protection against urban sprawl.

"Instead, we stand ready to work with communities across the country who have ideas for a new generation of garden cities and we have offered support to areas with locally supported plans that come forward.”

After I stopped spluttering with incoherent rage, I began to catalogue the problems with this statement. The first to come to mind was this: we are going to build on the greenbelt. We just are. There isn't enough brownfield land, much of what we have is contaminated in some way, and nobody is rushing forward with ways of paying to change that. If we want to ensure we have enough houses, then the green belt has to be redefined.

That, though, is okay. Firstly, you don’t need to use that much of it to build the requisite number of houses; secondly, much of the greenbelt is either useless or horrible anyway. Isolated strips of it are sites of outstanding natural beauty; but much of it is pony clubs or golf courses or ugly farmland clinging to the side of an arterial road. I spent the first 18 years of my life living within two miles of London's eastern greenbelt, and it was so bloody hideous we never used it anyway.

The biggest problem with Mr Lewis’s statement, though, is this. Local communities are never, ever going to come up with their own plans on the scale required to fix this mess. They're just not. Nobody with a view of rolling fields is ever going to suddenly decide they'd be happier with one of a housing estate; no one with a £500,000 house secretly wishes it was only worth £250,000. By expecting local people to come up with a housing plan themselves, all you do is enable those who already have homes to block any effort to help those who don’t.

The only way we're going to solve this is if central government takes action. The coalition, in fairness, has recognised this, and in 2012 it imposed a legal requirement on councils to come up with plans for meeting local housing need. If there was any chance they would do this themselves, it presumably wouldn’t have bothered.

It’s not altogether clear that Brandon Lewis knows any of this. His one job, his only function in this government, is to come up with a plan to deal with our near existential crisis level of housing shortage. This is his purpose, this is what he's for.

But, when presented with a thoughtful plan like Uxcester, his instantaneous, kneejerk response is to trash it. At a time of massive, national housing crisis, we find ourselves in possession of a housing minister who doesn't want to build houses. He’s about as useful as an asbestos sugar bowl.

Next year, Britain will have a tight general election in which every vote matters. Oxford West & Abdingdon is a key Tory/LibDem marginal. These are facts which probably weigh quite heavily on Brandon Lewis's mind.

But the fact remains that it is his job to ensure this country has enough houses, and he’s just made it abundantly clear that he doesn’t want to do it. If he can't even be nice about a theoretical plan like Uxcester, then what hope is there he could ever take real action? If this is how he sees the world, then what exactly is Brandon Lewis for?

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

Photo: Getty Images/AFP
Show Hide image

Is Yvette Cooper surging?

The bookmakers and Westminster are in a flurry. Is Yvette Cooper going to win after all? I'm not convinced. 

Is Yvette Cooper surging? The bookmakers have cut her odds, making her the second favourite after Jeremy Corbyn, and Westminster – and Labour more generally – is abuzz with chatter that it will be her, not Corbyn, who becomes leader on September 12. Are they right? A couple of thoughts:

I wouldn’t trust the bookmakers’ odds as far as I could throw them

When Jeremy Corbyn first entered the race his odds were at 100 to 1. When he secured the endorsement of Unite, Britain’s trade union, his odds were tied with Liz Kendall, who nobody – not even her closest allies – now believes will win the Labour leadership. When I first tipped the Islington North MP for the top job, his odds were still at 3 to 1.

Remember bookmakers aren’t trying to predict the future, they’re trying to turn a profit. (As are experienced betters – when Cooper’s odds were long, it was good sense to chuck some money on there, just to secure a win-win scenario. I wouldn’t be surprised if Burnham’s odds improve a bit as some people hedge for a surprise win for the shadow health secretary, too.)

I still don’t think that there is a plausible path to victory for Yvette Cooper

There is a lively debate playing out – much of it in on The Staggers – about which one of Cooper or Burnham is best-placed to stop Corbyn. Team Cooper say that their data shows that their candidate is the one to stop Corbyn. Team Burnham, unsurprisingly, say the reverse. But Team Kendall, the mayoral campaigns, and the Corbyn team also believe that it is Burnham, not Cooper, who can stop Corbyn.

They think that the shadow health secretary is a “bad bank”: full of second preferences for Corbyn. One senior Blairite, who loathes Burnham with a passion, told me that “only Andy can stop Corbyn, it’s as simple as that”.

I haven’t seen a complete breakdown of every CLP nomination – but I have seen around 40, and they support that argument. Luke Akehurst, a cheerleader for Cooper, published figures that support the “bad bank” theory as well.   Both YouGov polls show a larger pool of Corbyn second preferences among Burnham’s votes than Cooper’s.

But it doesn’t matter, because Andy Burnham can’t make the final round anyway

The “bad bank” row, while souring relations between Burnhamettes and Cooperinos even further, is interesting but academic.  Either Jeremy Corbyn will win outright or he will face Cooper in the final round. If Liz Kendall is eliminated, her second preferences will go to Cooper by an overwhelming margin.

Yes, large numbers of Kendall-supporting MPs are throwing their weight behind Burnham. But Kendall’s supporters are overwhelmingly giving their second preferences to Cooper regardless. My estimate, from both looking at CLP nominations and speaking to party members, is that around 80 to 90 per cent of Kendall’s second preferences will go to Cooper. Burnham’s gaffes – his “when it’s time” remark about Labour having a woman leader, that he appears to have a clapometer instead of a moral compass – have discredited him in him the eyes of many. While Burnham has shrunk, Cooper has grown. And for others, who can’t distinguish between Burnham and Cooper, they’d prefer to have “a crap woman rather than another crap man” in the words of one.

This holds even for Kendall backers who believe that Burnham is a bad bank. A repeated refrain from her supporters is that they simply couldn’t bring themselves to give Burnham their 2nd preference over Cooper. One senior insider, who has been telling his friends that they have to opt for Burnham over Cooper, told me that “faced with my own paper, I can’t vote for that man”.

Interventions from past leaders fall on deaf ears

A lot has happened to change the Labour party in recent years, but one often neglected aspect is this: the Labour right has lost two elections on the bounce. Yes, Ed Miliband may have rejected most of New Labour’s legacy and approach, but he was still a protégé of Gordon Brown and included figures like Rachel Reeves, Ed Balls and Jim Murphy in his shadow cabinet.  Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham were senior figures during both defeats. And the same MPs who are now warning that Corbyn will doom the Labour Party to defeat were, just months ago, saying that Miliband was destined for Downing Street and only five years ago were saying that Gordon Brown was going to stay there.

Labour members don’t trust the press

A sizeable number of Labour party activists believe that the media is against them and will always have it in for them. They are not listening to articles about Jeremy Corbyn’s past associations or reading analyses of why Labour lost. Those big, gamechanging moments in the last month? Didn’t change anything.

100,000 people didn’t join the Labour party on deadline day to vote against Jeremy Corbyn

On the last day of registration, so many people tried to register to vote in the Labour leadership election that they broke the website. They weren’t doing so on the off-chance that the day after, Yvette Cooper would deliver the speech of her life. Yes, some of those sign-ups were duplicates, and 3,000 of them have been “purged”.  That still leaves an overwhelmingly large number of sign-ups who are going to go for Corbyn.

It doesn’t look as if anyone is turning off Corbyn

Yes, Sky News’ self-selecting poll is not representative of anything other than enthusiasm. But, equally, if Yvette Cooper is really going to beat Jeremy Corbyn, surely, surely, she wouldn’t be in third place behind Liz Kendall according to Sky’s post-debate poll. Surely she wouldn’t have been the winner according to just 6.1 per cent of viewers against Corbyn’s 80.7 per cent. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.