waiting in the wings
‘Never wrestle with a chimney sweep.’
Hilary Benn is relating a piece of advice handed to him by his father, Labour veteran and political national treasure Tony Benn. This wisdom, Hilary Benn maintains, is relevant to his shadow communities and local government brief.
‘Just because your opponents are prepared to play in the gutter does not mean you should get down there and join them,’ he explains. ‘Argue with the policy and not the person.’
Mr Benn appears to have done little arguing at all since taking over the job from Caroline Flint in October last year. Apart from a couple of recent Twitter spats with housing minister Grant Shapps, clashes of any variety have been few and far between.
Of course, he has legitimate excuses for having kept a relatively low profile. He has only been in the job for six months so is still learning the ropes, and his role is more strategist than attack dog. Also, most significantly for Mr Benn, who like his father has a reputation for being a man of principle - not least as a teetotal vegetarian and one of the MPs to emerge from the expenses scandal unscathed - it must be hard to only attack policies rather than the person, without some viable alternatives to present.
There is a growing sense that this must change soon. Frustration is starting to build across the housing sector that, after two years of coalition government, other than a call to use a bankers’ bonus tax to fund housing and hints at regulating the private rented sector (see box: Hilary Benn on…), Labour is yet to reveal the direction of its housing policies.
‘He [Hilary Benn] has been noticeably quiet - so quiet it must be intentional,’ says Brendan Sarsfield, chief executive of 20,000-home association Family Mosiac. ‘I don’t know where Labour is going with housing at the moment. Are we going to see alternatives to coalition policy or some continuity? The sooner we know, the sooner a debate can start.’
Perched on a green leather sofa in the musky heat of his moth-infested parliamentary office, Mr Benn certainly gives the impression that his moves to date have been carefully calculated. Round, John Lennon-style glasses lend him a brooding, owl-like quality. Flanking him throughout the interview - his first since taking on the job - is one of two newly recruited special political advisors. This is Mr Benn’s grand unveiling.
Accordingly, his answers cover all the right ground. He litters his responses with housing facts, figures, and the names - not to mention the experiences - of housing bosses he has met over the past six months. He describes his new role as like ‘returning home’ on account of his previous experience as a councillor in Ealing, west London; he praises the ‘ocean of innovation’ in local government as councils make tough decisions in the face of ‘unfair cuts’ to ‘protect the future of communities’.
He brands the housing crisis as ‘the single biggest policy challenge’ facing him, and the nation. He is unequivocal about the fact that the only real solution to this is to build more homes.
Furthermore, he suggests Labour-led councils will use April’s self-financing reforms to show their ‘values are different’ by building more social homes than Conservative-led authorities. And he is, unsurprisingly, adamant that the coalition is failing to encourage house building.
‘The wheels are well and truly coming off the government’s housing policies,’ he says. ‘Just look at the [housing starts] figures. Two years in, just as their economic policies aren’t working, their housing policies aren’t working either… [Housing minister] Grant Shapps is hyperactive, but not a lot of houses are being built.’
All this said, winkling out a sense of what a Labour alternative would look like is hard work. Depending on how far you are willing to read between the lines, the MP for Leeds Central either says a lot, or very little.
First off, with many in the sector doubting whether public subsidy will ever be available for housing again, does he see a place for government grant funding of social housing under a future Labour government?
‘Public investment of course has to be part of it,’ he replies. ‘The affordable housing investment budget that the government inherited from us they slashed considerably. We will set out before the election what our spending commitments will be, and I am not going to do that now, much though you may encourage me. But we need more genuinely affordable housing, and we need mixed communities. I am very clear about that.’
Though vague, this sounds interesting; ‘genuinely affordable’ housing may suggest Mr Benn does not think the coalition’s ‘affordable rent’ programme does what it says on the tin. Would he look to repeat the £1.8 billion affordable rent programme?
‘But “affordable” for whom?’ he demands. ‘I have constituents coming to me in my surgeries and telling me “I really need a council house” because they can’t afford rent in the private sector and the energy bills and all that. So, at a time when a lot of people have not had a pay increase, and have often taken a pay cut, and there are increasing cost pressures - the changes in housing benefit, which haven’t yet completely impacted…’ He pauses, perhaps suddenly aware that this attack may prove unwise if he is unable to rule out continuing the affordable rent tenure.
‘Fundamentally, we need to get the supply up, because some of these things, like the rising rents in the private rented sector, are a function of a lack of supply. That should be the starting point. Getting the economy growing again is also a big part of this. If the economy isn’t growing and the government’s plan to mend it isn’t working, which self-evidently is the case, then what are you going to do to create growth and jobs?’
Certainly the coalition is exploring how it can use government guarantees to attract further private investment to housing - and the Bank of England is reportedly considering buying up housing association bonds as part of its quantitative easing plan.
So does he advocate investing directly in housing or house builder’s bonds as a fiscal stimulus, then?
‘We shall see whether the government will do that, but I am certainly urging them to do that because we need to build the homes and to get the economy back on track.’
A shortage of homes is only part of the complicated problem many landlords now face, though. The impact of the Welfare Reform Act is starting to bite as homelessness rises, forcing councils to consider housing homeless families in other parts of the country, as evidenced by Labour-led Newham’s move to try to house 500 families in Stoke-on-Trent.
While Mr Benn rails against many of the welfare reforms - especially the bedroom tax (‘I’m lost for words’) - and their cumulative impact on poor people, it is the ideological principle that appears to rile him the most.
Asked if he has any sympathy with the coalition’s attempt to tackle a perceived ‘dependency culture’ around benefits, Mr Benn’s eyes blaze. He interjects: ‘Now, when they talk about life dependency, this is an insult. This is an insult to a lot of my constituents who live in social housing who look after their home proudly, who work, who have always worked - and what is this government saying about social housing as a form of tenure? I think it is profoundly wrong because we need mixed communities and we need a mix of tenures so we can give people choice. I think this is a profoundly dangerous argument. And it is a very clear distinction between “them” and “us”.’
Mr Benn’s answer to the problem of the increasing £22.7 billion a year benefits bill is, once again, to build more homes rather than to cut. However, he quickly returns to the party line when asked if he would look to reverse any of the benefit cuts - and that line is pretty similar to his response to all policy-based queries.
‘Ed [Miliband] and Ed [Balls] have been very clear, and rightly so, that we are not in government now, the election is going to be in three years’ time. What we will undertake to do in our manifesto will only be what we can clearly demonstrate that we can fund. Credibility in your commitments is absolutely fundamental.’
The shadow communities minister looks hurt at the suggestion that he has been too quiet and that Labour has not provided robust enough opposition on housing since the coalition came into power in July 2010.
‘I don’t think that is a fair reflection,’ he says. ‘Certainly [shadow housing minister] Jack Dromey is doing a very effective job in providing just that. But I will say this: the housing crisis we are all facing has unfolded over three decades. I have spent, and will continue to spend, a lot of time listening to people. It is really important in politics to listen.
‘Policy has to be based on what is really going on, so I make no apology at all for spending a lot of time doing precisely that and asking a lot of people a lot of questions.’
Now that Mr Benn has evidently done plenty of listening, will we see a more adversarial approach?
‘That is for you to judge,’ he replies coolly. ‘Part of mine and Jack’s job is to hold the government to account. That is what the opposition does - and we do so, and will continue to do so, vigorously. And the other part of the job is to come up with an answer to the problem, which in the end we have to do together, because it will be the contribution of lots of people.’
Labour’s housing policies, which are expected to focus on regulating the private rented sector and increasing housing supply, are expected to emerge in the coming months. But Mr Benn deflects the question of exactly when with typical polite charm.
‘I make you a categorical promise: when we do publish it, Inside Housing will get to know. Very soon. So, a bit of patience.’
Hilary Benn on…
On the private rented sector:
‘In Newham, Sir Robin Wales is undertaking a consultation on a landlord licensing scheme and we
are looking very closely at the outcome of that.’
On how to build more homes:
‘Councils are looking at the potential [of housing revenue account reform] to provide more housing, looking at prudential borrowing, some engaging in special purpose vehicles. People have talked about pension funds, housing bonds - there’s a lot of ideas out there and frankly I think we will need all of them if we are to make progress.’