Since when has a Prime Minister coughing during a public speech become a crime? A reason for mocking? Or a reason for the BBC to edit Theresa May’s coughing fit into a Quentin Tarantino style nightmare film for the media class glitterati to giggle over?
For that is what the BBC, and the country’s other TV channels, did yesterday with their risible and bad-mannered coverage of May’s speech to the Tory party conference. The way the TV broadcasters – and much of the print media too – treated her loss of voice was not only mocking but deeply unkind to someone who clearly has a cold, suffers from long-term diabetes and has been flying around the world trying to piece together some sort of Brexit truce with our EU partners.
Disagree with May’s policies, fine. Criticise and analyse her speech for its content, lack of it, or otherwise, sure. It’s fine to make it clear you would prefer Boris, Jacob, David or Amber, or indeed Jeremy, in her place – although that is not the role of a state-funded broadcaster.
But for supposed independent reporters to launch such an ad hominem attack on May, and show such personal glee over her humiliation, was embarrassing. For them, more than for her. To make matters worse, turning a prankster waving a P45 in the halls into some sort of security breakdown or sign of turbulent times, was below the belt. Every party conference for the last few decades has its clowns, and the P45 should have been laughed at or not for what it was: a prank.
Yet it’s a pity the media turned May’s speech into such a circus, because there were some genuinely interesting and breakthrough policies which, although they may be small at first glance, could herald big changes in the future.
Not surprisingly, the BBC and other media were either too busy trying to be Tarantino to listen, or too lazy. Take council housing: May is the first Conservative prime minister since Harold Macmillan to announce a social housing building programme on any scale. Sure, the £2bn going into the new policy sounds small, but the potential of this new initiative could be huge.
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She seemed to get the depth problem too, saying she would “take personal charge” of “getting government back into the business of building houses” and creating “a new generation of council houses to help fix our broken housing market”.
May added: “For 30 or 40 years we simply have not built enough homes. As a result, prices have risen so much that the average home now costs almost eight times average earnings. That’s been a disaster for young people in particular. We have begun to put this right… but the election result showed us this is not nearly enough.”
Admittedly, the number is relatively small. The £2bn will pay for around 25,000 new social homes over the next five years: 5,000 new homes per year. By contrast, the government with Macmillan as housing minister pushed through around 200,000 new council homes per year in the early 1950s.
But compared with the low levels of social housing which have been built over the last few decades, even 5,000 is a big first step. More pertinently, it opens up the door for new entrants, alongside councils and housing associations, to the market. Under the new policy, local authorities, housing associations and other organisations – that means pension funds or other private sector bodies – will be invited to bid for a share of the £2bn and, in May’s words, “allow homes to be built for social rent well below market level”.
That’s a subsidy, but a good one if it means that housing associations – which basically took over from councils as the new providers of affordable housing – could start building on scale again. For the record, affordable or social housing includes the social rented sector, a combination of council and Registered Social Landlords managed housing and makes up 20% of the housing stock and shared ownership.
So will May’s move make a difference? James Lidgate, director of housing at Legal & General, one of the UK’s biggest financial services and pension fund managers, says her initiative has huge promise. “It’s a small start but potentially what this does is open up the social housing market to new players such as ourselves. It also means that housing associations and house builders such as us can work directly with local councils or other government bodies to buy land directly – cutting out the house builders and developers.”
Legal &General is fast becoming one of the country’s biggest house builders that you have never heard of. Not only is Legal & General quite literally making high-quality, modern houses in a factory in Leeds, but it is building them on sites together, selling them privately but also working with housing associations for small, modular affordable homes, costing about £60,000 each.
Lidgate adds that of course the devil will be in the detail. Legal & General and others will want to know what the government proposes with regard to setting rental fees, and the inflation index for affordable homes.
Others approving of May’s move include the National Housing Federation, which represents housing associations. David Orr, NHF chief executive, also says the new £2bn will make a real difference: “Building homes for social rent will make work pay and help bring down the housing benefit bill in the long run by moving people out of costly private lets.”
And that’s the big challenge. Not only is the affordable housing market hideously complex, but it is also hideously expensive to subsidise: this year the taxpayer will pay out £25 billion in housing benefits. Of this total, £10bn is paid to private landlords who rent their properties to those who are subsidised direct by housing welfare benefits. Just imagine if that £10bn was spent instead on building new social – or as Big Issue’s John Bird prefers to call it – sociable housing?
Lidgate is right when he says this huge £10bn sum is unsustainable and an inefficient use of resources. Imagine instead if that money were released so that housing associations and pensions funds could work in collaboration with local authorities to build top quality housing developments in perpetuity?
Now that would be a legacy to fight for. If May keeps her promise to take personal charge of a wave of new social housing and steps up the pressure, she may be on to a winner. The slogan at the next party conference wouldn’t be bad either: “Margaret Thatcher sold off council houses. I built thousands of new ones.”