WALTER CRONXITE on how a local MP has pirouetted 180 degrees around what he has stood for in the past
Gavin Barwell, the Conservative MP for Croydon Central, smeared himself across the airwaves of Britain yesterday, apparently in an effort to prove the old gag: “How do you know when a Tory MP is lying? Their lips move.”As Tory government minister for housing and planning, Barwell was trailing the housing White Paper, to be published tomorrow. It is regarded as just about the only piece of significant domestic legislation likely to be put before parliament during this otherwise Brexit-dominated session. And Barwell’s future as a frontline politician depends upon its success.
Yesterday’s media splurge is undoubtedly the biggest platform that career politician Barwell has yet had in his undistinguished working life. And oh, how he tried so hard. His efforts to emit a “relaxed” “man of the people” vibe, going tie-less into the ITV studios for Peston on Sunday, simply made him look awkward and on-edge: the cufflinks he still wore were the giveaway that perhaps, as in a scene from The Thick Of It, some image consultant-type had forced the hack MP to remove his neckwear against his will in the Green Room just before going out to meet the show’s host.
The substance of what Barwell had to impart was no less ungenuine.
For Barwell is the Nimby – the not-in-my-backyard – who has opposed all sorts of new homes on Green Belt and Metropolitan Open Land in his Croydon constituency since being elected as an MP in 2010, and who now will be in charge of government policy which will permit… some housing to be built on Green Belt land.
And Barwell is the post-Thatcherite Conservative who has championed the Right-to-Buy policies of the past 35 years which have impoverished local authorities of their housing stock and threatens to privatise Housing Association property, but who now as a government minister will be implementing a housing bill which… acknowledges that the Tories have been offering an impossible dream of home ownership for all.The announcement of the new policy of build-to-rent, as briefed by Barwell’s department to the Sunday papers, is an admission of failure of the flagship Tory policy of the last five decades, a policy which has done much to create the conditions for the overheated housing market, particularly in London and the south-east.
As The Observer reported in its front-page lead yesterday, “In a departure from her predecessor David Cameron, who focused on advancing Margaret Thatcher’s ambition for a ‘home-owning democracy’…” the housing White Paper “… will aim to deliver more affordable and secure rental deals, and threaten tougher action against rogue landlords, for the millions of families unable to buy because of sky-high property prices.”
This latter stipulation is also of interest to Barwell hypocrisy-watchers. One of the fiercest critics of Croydon Council’s Landlord Licensing scheme – intended to take tough action against rogue private landlords – was none other than the friend of the private landlord, Gavin Barwell.
The Observer continued: “Ministers…”, meaning Barwell and his boss at the communities ministry, Sajid Javid, “… will say they want to change planning and other rules to ensure developers provide a proportion of new homes for ‘affordable rent’, instead of just insisting that they provide a quota of ‘affordable homes for sale’.”
The White Paper to be presented by housing minister Barwell will see him do a pirouette of 180 degrees around so much that he has held dear throughout his self-serving political career.
In October 2014, when the housing crisis was hardly a new phenomenon, he parroted the then Prime Minister, David Cameron. In the hope it might advance his career, Barwell told his constituents: “We want to help people fulfil their dream of owning their own home.
“As Conservatives, we want to spread ownership of property as widely as possible, not go back to a time when it was the preserve of a privileged few,” Barwell wrote then.
Indeed, in 2015, when he just hung on to his parliamentary seat, Barwell had stood on a Tory manifesto promise that “everyone who works hard should be able to own a home of their own”.But yesterday, on Peston, Barwell was now parroting the unelected Prime Minister, Theresa Maybe, when in his opening remarks on the programme he said, “If we’re going to have a country that works for everyone we’ve got to have something to say to those who want to own their own home and also to those who want to rent.” Thems our italics.
So much for Thatcher’s “home-owning democracy”, then.
Barwell talked about offering tenants longer, more secure tenancies, exactly the sort of thing which this long-time governor of the board of Croydon’s biggest landlords, the Whitgift Foundation, has usually argued against.
Barwell also did his best to mislead and misinform. “Governments for 30 or 40 years have not built enough homes,” he said, spreading the blame around, and failing to acknowledge that he had served as a loyal party whip in the Cameron government which had built fewer homes than any administration since the 1930s.
Nor did Barwell choose to point out that local authorities, including Croydon, have been deterred from building council houses since the 1980s because Tory policy banned them from re-investing the income from Right-to-Buy sales in bricks and mortar.
Barwell calls all this is just “a change of tone”.
But it was when questioned about levels of homelessness that Barwell resorted to outright lies to try to score cheap political points.
This is what Barwell said on national television: “People are right to be angry about homelessness. It has been going up over the last few years. It’s still lower today than it was in most years under the Labour government. But it is absolutely right that people should be angry about that.”
Peston, a former Daily Telegraph journalist, failed to question Barwell on the veracity of his statement.
Research shows 4,134 people were sleeping on the streets of England in 2016, a 16 per cent rise from the year before, in many cases forced out of their homes because of changes in housing benefits introduced by the government in which Barwell has served.
John Healey, Labour’s shadow housing spokesman, has branded the increase in homelessness under governments in which Barwell has served as a “national scandal”.
“It should shame us all that in the 21st century, in one of the richest countries in the world, the number of people sleeping on our streets has doubled in just five years,” Healey said last year.
And when Barwell was not resorting to outright lies in his interview, he opted to use a little disingenuity. With a former Tory cabinet minister, Andrew Mitchell, also in the studio to argue for the government to uphold its pledge that Green Belt land should be “sacrosanct”, Barwell chose a form of words which also might have been questioned more closely.
“There is no need to take huge tracts of land out of the Green Belt to solve the housing crisis,” Barwell said, suggesting that building on small tracts of Green Belt land might be alright.This, remember, from a constituency MP who little more than a year ago was organising petitions and objecting strongly to even the suggestion of de-designating any land from the protections of Green Belt or Metropolitan Open Land status.
But then, before he was minister for housing, Barwell was the Nimby MP for Croydon Central.
“I am happy for the council to replace under-used garages with much-needed homes, but I will be objecting to building on precious open space,” he said then.
“The idea that the largely semi-detached buildings in these residential roads should be replaced by medium-rise blocks is unacceptable – it would completely change the character of Shirley and I will be objecting to it very strongly,” was another of his Nimbyisms.
“The idea that the largely terraced housing and small blocks of flats in Forestdale should be replaced by medium-rise blocks is unacceptable – it would completely change the character of the area and I will be objecting to it very strongly,” said the man who yesterday lied on national television about the rates of homelessness under his government.
But if we are to quote Barwell on his previous pronouncements on home-building policy, anyone who thinks that his government’s housing White Paper might solve the problems in this area might do well to remember that in 2012, Barwell actually posited this question: “Is there a housing crisis in Croydon?”
On that occasion Barwell said, “Alongside immigration, housing is the issue people most regularly raise with me – people who are struggling to pay the mortgage, people threatened with eviction, people living in overcrowded or otherwise inappropriate conditions.
“Sadly, there is often little I can do.”
With the publication tomorrow of the housing White Paper, we may discover that, as far as Barwell is concerned, little has really changed.
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