Monday, 31 January 2011

"No Grant" Shapps and the Social Housing Scandal

UK Housing Minister Grant Shapps visited Collyhurst in north Manchester today to talk to local people after a long promised Private Finance Initiative (PFI) redevelopment scheme for the social housing estate was scrapped. £250 millions of promised funding has been withdrawn, leaving the local council, housing organisations and local community groups scrabbling to apply for a much reduced £39 million pot which is by no means guaranteed.

Grant Shapps & boss Eric Pickles
However, Mr Shapps was decidedly upbeat about all this. Although on Radio 4's PM programme (at 42 mins) the chair of the local community association sounded decidedly despairing, the Minister insisted the residents had "got localism" and rather than worrying about losing at least £210 millions of development funding, were busy planning for the future.

Well, of course they would be doing that. Unlike the wealthy Mr Shapps, they have no choice and no means of going elsewhere. Like 1.8 million people on social housing waiting lists, they are stuck where they are now that the Government has effectively gutted both the redevelopment and maintenance budgets for the sector. With housing welfare also under extreme pressure, the housing associations which are now the main providers of low cost social housing are busy cutting costs, staff and services. A whole swathe of people among the poorest and most vulnerable are struggling to keep a roof over their heads - and when they do, as likely as not it will be leaking.

But perhaps one of the most staggering comments from Mr Shapps, once he had surveyed the estate with its rotten window frames, mouldy walls and, for residents, huge heating costs, was this:“(Collyhurst) is clearly in a state which needs long overdue work. The interesting thing is most  of the estate dates from the 80s but it’s in a terrible condition.”

We live in times which have no history, no knowledge or awareness of what has gone before - or perhaps it is just denial. Because of course social housing constructed in the 1980s and early 1990s will be in a terrible condition now : built to the most minimal standards under the Thatcher Conservatives, the materials and specifications used were appalling. What had been a charitable movement to provide housing for people with specific needs was being steamrollered by Conservative Government policy to replace general needs council housing. Funding was being poured into the sector but with tight conditions about what was to be built - nothing too good, basically - and then with a requirement for progressively more and more privately-raised funding to be used.

The consequences were obvious to everyone, as I learned when I attended the opening of a new sheltered housing scheme in Bradford, a city at that time run by Shapps' current boss, the intellectually-flatulent Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles. As local dignitaries slapped each other on the back, I stood looking at the communal lounge with one of the senior staff who had worked on the building. The timber fittings were well varnished, new carpets lined the floors and rather pleasant sofas and easy chairs were positioned for residents to relax on over a cup of tea with their neighbours. It had all the appearance of a community in the making.

"It looks really good," I complimented.
"Well yes," the developer replied. "But let's face it, it won't be here in twenty years."
"Why?" I asked in surprise. "Is something else due to be built here?"
"No," came the reply. "But it's built with crap. It will all have fallen down by then!"

Grant Shapps' party's last Government destroyed decades of good housing practice. Like its 1960s Labour predecessor with its well-intentioned but misguided foray into tower block construction, the 1979-97 Tory regime ignored the long view. Unlike Old Labour, it happily skimmed plenty off for its construction industry allies - though with its continuing smooch with the PFI after Blair's ascension, New Labour did little to improve things.
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Now, as Shapps retreats to the comforts of his 5-bedroomed detached house in Hertfordshire, perhaps at the controls of his very own personal aeroplane, the occupants of social housing everywhere are left with his twisted NuSpeak ringing in their ears, his smarmy smile beaming down at them as he slices their communities and life chances away.

In an increasingly rare flash of insight, a leading Lib Dem Councillor has decried Shapps and Pickles as the "Laurel and Hardy" of the Government. But as many people in Collyhurst huddle in cold rooms and damp houses in tonight's freezing January weather, it really is no laughing matter.

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