The very thing that can make BBC Radio 4’s Today programme such an irritating start to the day is also the great skill that keeps democratic governments in power against all the odds – the ability of ministers to listen to a question, then ignore it.
When figures indicating a drop in new houses being built were leaked this week the government response contradicted the evidence. The draft statistics from the Department for Communities and Local Government indicated that housing new-builds will fall by 4% to just 128,000 in 2012-15 – far below the 250,000 that housing experts say we need to keep up with demand and start to tackle our shortage.
When confronted, housing minister Kris Hopkins said: “We inherited a housing market suffering the aftershocks of an unsustainable housing boom, and a planning system that pitted neighbours against developers and built nothing but resentment. Since 2010 we’ve pulled out all the stops to get Britain building … housing completions are forecast to continue to rise, as is private sector house building.”
But that is not what the figures show. Hopkins is burying his head in the sand.
Another favourite ostrich issue for the government is rising rents. In March, the minister stated that private sector rents were rising by just 1.6% a year, 0.1% below inflation. The latest Homelet Rental Index, which surveys private tenants across the UK, indicates that rents have in fact increased by 7.5% in the last 12 months.
We must put a premium on transparency. After a recent furore over Hopkins’ comments about housing benefit claimants, the housing minister felt moved to clarify his position this week. It is, according to Hopkins, “perfectly legitimate” for private landlords not to offer tenancies to tenants claiming housing benefit.
This statement confirmed what everybody had thought he said in the first place, and gave critics a second bite at the cherry. Shadow housing minister Emma Reynolds said his comments were “appalling”.
Why? Given the regular deployment of smoke and mirrors, we should welcome honesty from ministers, even when – perhaps especially when – we do not like what they say. Because here Hopkins is saying what so many others are quietly thinking.
And he is quite right too: if the government is embracing the spirit of free enterprise in the housing market then it must also accept that a landlord is free to let to whomever he or she would like, as long as the law is not broken.
We might not like the fact, but this is happening across the country. Letting agents still commonly label properties with the outdated term “no DSS”. There are some very simple reasons why landlords will not let to housing benefit tenants, including the rules imposed by insurance providers and buy-to-let mortgage lenders, and the antiquated system of payment in arrears for housing support which often leaves benefit-claiming tenants in arrears from the off.
A previous housing minister under the same government, Grant Shapps, insisted that landlords would not leave the housing benefit market just because the local housing allowance is capped under welfare reform. That was wishful thinking verging on the dishonest; what sensible business person would allow their enterprise to operate in an environment where a lid is placed on profit even in a booming market?
It is an uncomfortable truth that, when presented with a choice, many private landlords will not support those in most housing need and will refuse to rent homes to tenants claiming housing benefit. But it is the truth and, in an environment where there is so little political honesty about the state of the housing market, we have to applaud those willing to speak it. We have to deal with the problem, not attack those who expose it.