Last night, the lecture theatre at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) played host to the housing hustings, organised by Shelter, the National Housing Federation and a coalition of other organisations interested in this particular bit of public policy.
The questions from an audience of policy wonks and people who’d been at the sharp end of this particular crisis were passionate and informed. The answers from the panel were generally thoughtful but not terribly enlightening. Two things, however, stood out.
One was the answer given by Conservative Luke Hall, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Local Government & Homelessness, in response to a question about how much of your salary it was acceptable to spend on housing. Most of the panel agreed with, well, pretty much all housing experts that a third of your salary was the limit, and that anything more than that could not be classed as affordable.
Hall said 50 per cent. A Tory housing minister thinks that, if literally half of your income is being swallowed by your rent, then that’s just fine and affordable. Okay.
This was the only comment of the night to be greeted by boos from the audience. From somewhere behind me I heard the words “Maybe on an MP’s salary”. I’m not actually sure that’s terribly fair – looking at his CV, Hall joined supermarket chain Lidl at 18; he’s hardly Jacob Rees-Mogg – but nonetheless you wouldn’t call this comment not out of touch with the reality of the housing crisis, would you.
The other thing that leapt out at me was that the Tories sent Hall at all. Some of the other parties sent reasonably heavy hitters. Sian Berry is co-leader of the Greens; John Healey Labour’s shadow housing secretary and also a former housing minister (and not, as I’d previously written, a former secretary of state; my bad). Tom Brake, admittedly, is neither household name, nor the LibDem who shadows the housing brief – that’s Tim Farron.
The Tories, though, sent as their representative to the election campaign’s big housing debate their third ranked housing minister – a man who, at 33 years old, found himself answering for policy decisions taken when he was in his early 20s and working for a supermarket. Housing minister Esther McVey was mysteriously unavailable.
The actual housing secretary Robert Jenrick tweeted that he was instead speaking at the Jewish News hustings, for which Labour had failed to put up a speaker – but while this is a terrible indictment of Labour’s inability to build bridges with the Jewish community, it still looks suspiciously like the Tories aren’t taking the housing crisis massively seriously.
Still. If we didn’t know that before, we would by now, because this morning Sajid Javid went on Sky News and said, with a straight face, that the last Labour government, which left office nine and a half years ago, was responsible for the enormous rise in homelessness. The upsettingly visible rise in rough sleeping that has happened since the Conservative party came to power, unseen in Britain since the last time the Conservative party were in power, is apparently nothing whatsoever to do with them.
I think you ought to know I’m feeling very depressed.