After nearly 20 appearances at Tory conference fringe events, it was a busy week for Croydon’s gaffe-prone MP. But as WALTER CRONXITE reports, it is not only the wealthy member for Croydon Central who has been demonstrating his cluelessness over solving the housing crisis
It’s fair to say that when a new junior minister is attracting full-blooded distancing from No10 within a few weeks of taking up their new job, things ain’t going too well.
So it is with gaffe-prone Gavin Barwell, the Tory Government Minister for Housing, Planning and for London, who’s capabilities for opening his gob without properly engaging his brain are already well known to the people of Croydon.
Now, the rest of the country is beginning to discover, as Clive Anderson might have put it, that there’s no beginning to Barwell’s talents.
Yesterday, Barwell got what amounts to a full-on dressing down directly from Downing Street, after he had suggested that those with assets to pass through their family should consider skipping a generation, with grandparents leaving their homes in their wills to their grandchildren, so that they might be better able to get into the super-heated property market.
Barwell’s 75-year-old mother has written him out of her will, and is leaving her £700,000 house on Mill View Gardens in suburban Shirley to her grandchildren. Gav, meanwhile, will just have to rough it in his £750,000 home on Church Way in leafy Sanderstead.
“I have got a nice home,” Barwell told a fringe meeting at last week’s Tory conference, failing not to sound smug.
“I have got three kids and my mother has just disinherited my brother and I in order that she can pass her assets on to her five grandchildren. They will be OK.” According to those at the meeting, Barwell did not sound at all bitter at this development.
Asked if others should transfer wealth in this way, Barwell was reported in Her Majesty’s Daily Torygraph as having said: “Yes, absolutely. Generally in life we all like to think that our children are going to be better off than us. But at the moment, as things stand, they are less likely to own their own home and we need to do something about that.”
None of which appears to have been checked out with his department or his political masters in advance. A statement from a spokesman for No10 issued a few hours after Barwell’s remarks appeared in newsprint dripped with disdain.
These were “personal comments” they said of the remarks made by Barwell, despite the fact that he had been speaking as the housing minister, at a Conservative Party conference fringe event that was discussing the housing market…
The No10 aide said it was not acceptable for the government to intervene in the way people decide to distribute their wealth after their death. Barwell’s remarks “are certainly not policy”, they said.
“What is important in terms of government policy is that we build enough homes,” the No10 spokesman said. “What people do with their estates is an issue for them. It is not for the government to dictate how they complete their wills.”
Consider your wrist well and duly slapped, Gav.
Barwell’s mother clearly has a lot to answer for, since her career politician son is well known for his attention-seeking behaviour.
“The trouble with Gavin,” said one of his erstwhile colleagues from the time that Barwell was a councillor at Croydon Town Hall, “is that he allows his over-enthusiasm to get the better of him.”
Even May’s advisors in Birmingham for the Conservative conference were openly expressing their concerns last week about Barwell’s scatalogical approach. “They were slagging him off, calling him an idiot for speaking at 18 fringe events,” one conference-goer has told Inside Croydon. Most junior ministers show sound judgement by accepting invitations to speak at only half-a-dozen events. “It possibly explains why he’s making so many gaffes,” they said.
Of course, Barwell’s comments on inheritance also showed that not only is he out of touch with his own Prime Minister and party policy, he is vastly out of touch with the majority of his constituents, a growing number of whom are homeless and unable even to get a council home to rent because of the Thatcherite housing policies of the past 35 years.
Barwell has described the homelessness crisis as “a moral shame on us”. But he has yet to show any willingness to address the fundamental issue: the need to build many more homes, and that these homes should be available to be lived in by people who are not fortunate through accidents of birth to be heirs to small fortunes.
Barwell and his party’s over-weaning emphasis on home ownership – or what should be known for what it has always been: bribing people to vote Tory with billions of pounds-worth of public assets – have reduced the amount of social housing being built, forcing people into the private market, and this has had the effect of super-heating the housing market, especially in London and south-east England, to unaffordable levels for properties, both to buy and to rent.
Barwell, though, remains in denial. He doesn’t appear able to accept his own government’s figures which show that under David Cameron, the Tory-led coalition built fewer houses than at any time since Stanley Baldwin in the 1920s.
With a string of ill-judged pronouncements since taking up his shiny new office in the Communities and Local Government Department after his promotion in Theresa May’s government over the summer, Barwell is demonstrating very well why it took him six years to gain such a promotion.
Yet some of Barwell’s more hare-brained notions have received support – from a leading figure in Croydon’s Labour Party.
Barwell continues to oppose building council or social homes because, the housing minister says, they are a “denial of people’s ambitions and dreams”. Many people just dream of any decent home for their children and themselves.
The housing minister seriously suggested that new council homes create “inequality”. He ought to try the sort of inequality that exists for families forced to live in a single room B&B while in temporary accommodation in Croydon, caused by the lack of available council homes.
As one of Barwell’s constituents said on hearing his latest batch of ill-judged remarks, “Pop by to my neighbours if you want inequality.”
This Croydon Central resident owns their own home, while the house next door has been converted into an array of overly small flats, some of which may not meet current housing minimum standards.
“They pay two and a half times more Council Tax than I do for the same sized house. No matter how hard they try, they will never be able to save for old age as their rent is so high – they pay more for a cupboard that I pay for the mortgage on my house.
“At the low point, there was three generations, with seven people living in one room – and no one complained to the local authority about the landlord and the conditions, because we were all frightened that they would be shipped to the London Road BnBs if we did.”
These are over-crowded conditions approaching those of Victorian slums, in the heart of Barwell’s own constituency.
And Barwell’s solution? In a country which for decades has been building smaller-sized homes than anywhere else in Europe? Barwell wants to build even smaller homes.
In the past, when in opposition and the Tory-run council was allowing office-to-residential conversions of “rabbit hutch”-sized flats, Croydon Labour denounced such profit-hungry developments as “the slums of the future”.
But last week, Barwell’s small homes announcement got the backing of Croydon Labour’s deputy leader Alison Butler, the councillor responsible for housing in the borough.
In one of his many other appearances at the Tory conference, Barwell said, “I don’t know if anyone’s seen any of the schemes that Pocket have done where they’ve basically done a deal with the GLA to get some flexibility on space standards. As a result they can offer a product well below market price.”
“Done a deal” is Barwell shorthand for the company, Pocket Living, being given a £22million loan in 2013 when Boris Johnson was London Mayor, and to go ahead with delivering what amounts to 21st Century prefabs on marginal sites in central London. The “well below market price” to which Barwell refers, for a one-bed prefab on a new scheme in Lambeth, is a “mere” £267,000, which is probably regarded as small change to the heirs and heiresses of the Barwell estate.
Such is the perversity of what is regarded as “affordable” housing in 2016.
Meanwhile, Barwell’s government’s policy has made it virtually impossible for local authorities and housing associations to provide similar rapid-delivery homes for rent for those forced to wait on their housing lists.
Inside Croydon‘s loyal reader perhaps won’t be surprised at support for the small homes initiative from Butler, the all-powerful figure in Croydon’s council clique. Butler already has a record of providing temporary accommodation for those on the council’s homeless list in converted office blocks where the flats are smaller than housing standards minimums. Since such homes are provided in extremis and supposedly on a temporary (less than six weeks, by law) basis, most accept this as an emergency measure.
But now, as in so many other ways, Butler’s Croydon Council wants to follow Lambeth’s lead. In charge of housing in Lambeth is Councillor Matthew Bennett, a one-time parliamentary aide to Steve Reed OBE, the Progress MP for Croydon North, for whom Butler and her council cabal are among the cheeriest of cheerleaders.
“I really think we should be standing up for space standards, although I wouldn’t dismiss any innovation coming forward,” Butler said, brilliantly managing to contradict herself in the space of a single sentence.
“Pocket have looked at doing some schemes in Croydon and we have said we’re happy to listen and see what they are offering,” Butler said.
What much of this goes to show, of course, is that none of our politicians actually have a clue about what to do about the housing crisis, as long as they remain constrained to the Right To Buy neo-con schtick that has pretty much prevented councils from delivering homes for four decades.
And the responses to Barwell’s various brain farts have also gone to demonstrate the pit-falls of attempts at political point scoring on social media.
For last week it was none other than Steve Reed who decried Barwell’s housing down-sizing suggestion as creating “the slums of the future”. Which could be a bit embarrassing next time the MP meets up with Matthew Bennett and Reed’s other old muckers from Lambeth who are already doing just that.
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