By the time Ed Milliband arrived at Norton Rose’s More London offices last night for a fundraiser in aid of Norwood, the Jewish social care charity, he’d dusted himself down from another bruising PMQs scrap on health reforms.
Fresh from the latest sniper attack from the Dear Brother - (who pops up to publish articles when Ed’s getting a battering in the media) - the Labour leader was hoping to capitalise on his success forcing a reportedly ‘depressed’ Stephen Hester to hand back his wife’s shoe fund.
But just as the bonuses bluster is a distraction from the more pertinent issues around lending and social inequality, similarly, many other areas of policy fail to consider the importance of housing. No politician has bothered to ask what effect living in squalid, cramped conditions has on illiterate school kids who’ve got nowhere to study, who don’t get jobs, claim benefits and suffer health issues as a result.
No one’s really looked at the young people from broken homes who turn to crime and end up in prison at the taxpayers’ expense, while victims pick up their own pieces.
And few have considered how much money we spend on hip replacements for elderly people living alone and uncared for. And many more pensioners get so lonely they end up supporting splinter groups like the National Trust. Heaven forbid!
I jest of course on that last point. The serious issue though is that it’s astonishing how few politicians seem to grasp the broader economic case for investment in quality housing and how much it could relieve spending on the indirect fallout of failing to do so.
Five years on from the monumental failure that was Gordon Brown’s plan to build three million homes, we still have no credible housing solutions from Labour.
Whatever your political inclination, at least housing minister Grant Shapps has been showing signs of life. Problems occur when novelty nonsense like the house swap plan for social tenants get in the way of driving new development, but he knows his stuff.
Praise however, should also rightly be bestowed for progress in the sell-off of public land. Finally Britain seems to be catching up with the rest of the world, and while the government’s planning reforms seem to be wriggling around in the long grass, the very real progress being made by the HCA is a worthy feather for Shapps to be wearing in his cap.
It’s more than could be said for shadow housing minister Jack Dromey, the 63-year-old trade-unionist revealed as taking a £60,000-a-year payment from Unite. Despite it being a clear breach of parliamentary code, he got away with it. Presumably because he’s married to Harriet Harman.
My conversation with Ed Miliband however, was quite revealing.
“Housing is the ‘orphan issue’ of British politics,” he said when I asked what his plans were to make good on past promises. “I’m not even sure its talked about enough and in a way, it hasn’t had enough political knock-about.”
In response to the accusation that Labour’s housing policy was a wholesale failure, he admitted: “We didn’t do enough. Fundamentally we tried, towards the end of our time in government, to say to local authorities: ‘You can say we don’t want housing here or there, but in the end you have to play your card and have housing somewhere.’
I asked him then if he supported the coalition’s moves to speed up development with planning reform. Milliband replied: “I think the government has totally messed it up I’m afraid. What they did is get rid of targets, get rid of obligations and then they’ve panicked, brought it a bloody stupid thing, an assumption in favor of sustainable development.”
Surely a massive contradiction? A question he chose to avoid, saying: “The point we got to by the end of our time in government was that local authorities have to put their housing somewhere. The other issue is private developers sitting on land and watching it accumulate in value and not using it.”
That old Labour chestnut of land-banking.
Miliband continued: “I don’t have a solution for this, but in the end government has to invest in housing, and there’s not much money around so it’s a massive challenge. At the very least we’ve got to say ‘you can’t have a no housing anywhere policy’, what we have now is the worst of all worlds, basically.”
Of course it’s unrealistic to expect every politician to have a comprehensive grasp of every area of policy, but on an issue as important as housing, many will be exasperated by Miliband’s lack of engagement, particularly when you consider how closely he worked with Gordon Brown on this, a benchmark Labour policy. Given that, could it raise further concerns about his ability to lead on any other issue?