Gavin Barwell, a “not very successful career politician”, should never have been appointed to the board of Clarion, the country’s largest housing association.
That’s the view of Rob Gershon, a prominent activist for tenants’ rights, in a devastating critique of the former Croydon Central Tory MP’s career and qualifications.
Barwell, who lost his MP’s seat at the 2017 General Election, had before that held the position of housing minister, and managed to ignore seven urgent warnings from parliamentary colleagues about the deadly risks of flammable cladding on residential tower blocks.
And then the Grenfell Tower fire happened.
Then, just before Christmas, it was announced that he had been appointed to the board of Clarion, perhaps the first lucrative directorship for Barwell in his post-Commons career, as he seeks to cash-in on his contacts at Westminster and with the Conservative Party.
But according to Gershon, Barwell is barren of appropriate qualifications to serve on the board of a housing association.
Gershon is the Housing Quality Network’s residents’ network lead associate, and regularly writes for 24housing.co.uk. Last week, he used his column to question the appropriateness, or otherwise, of Clarion’s appointment of Barwell.
Gershon points out that rules put in place by the government that Barwell served in require housing association boards to be comprised of “professionals”. Barwell, of course, is barren of any qualifications in the housing sector. The Tory regulation had the effect of kicking many tenant representatives off the boards of housing associations; Gershon argues that it also ought to disqualify Barwell from the Clarion board.
“Nobody can know the exact criteria for employing Gavin Barwell on the board of Clarion Housing Group,” Gershon wrote.
“Even putting aside his record on ignoring the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group’s warnings about fire safety in tower blocks, there are strong regulatory arguments for not appointing him.
“Emails revealed by Peter Apps and the Inside Housing team showed Barwell simply ignored seven letters from the APPG asking for action on tower block safety. It is likely this issue will not be resolved till the completion of the second phase of the Grenfell Inquiry and the police investigation that will follow it.
“Putting fire-safety aside – a defining feature of Barwell’s career so far – other regulatory tests raise serious questions about his suitability to be on any housing board. One of the features of the government Barwell was a part of was insisting housing association boards are made up of ‘professionals’, a position not wrongly reached after the near-collapse of the Cosmopolitan Group in 2012.
“Unfortunately, this meant many resident board members lost their places. In some cases, the only direct link between the people who set the values of organisations and the people who live in the communities they are supposed to serve was broken – in a misguided rush to exclude residents in favour of financial know-how.”
Gershon goes on to offer “just a few of the reasons that the economic and governance gradings of Clarion could be undermined by the appointment of a not-very-successful career politician”.
On economics, Gershon writes, “Barwell appeared in an excruciating BBC Newsnight interview in May 2018 where, asked about funding to build social-rent homes, he started talking about the national debt and saying we ‘couldn’t afford’ to build social-rent homes, seemingly ignorant of the fact that, in the long-term, they pay for themselves financially and have much wider social value.
“The entire economic viability of housing associations is based on their understanding of the risk and value of their loans. Barwell does not seem to be able to distinguish between institutional investment and the oft-repeated slogans about ‘balancing the books’ that apply to household budgets.
“Barwell was part of the government that completely lost control of what ‘affordability’ means. In the end, his government passed a law allowing the secretary of state for the then [Department of Communities and Local Government] to be able to define what ‘affordable’ is. His inability to match what people can afford with the word ‘affordability’ raises questions about what he considers affordable in terms of financial risk for a large housebuilding association.
“Barwell’s housing white paper (back in the distant mists of early 2017) insisted on the sale of high-value council properties to generate funds to build homes nobody can afford.
“By this time, there had been an enormous amount of evidence around how the economics work that show this was another ideological attack on homes for people on low or no incomes. The justification for it was, in part, to meet a manifesto pledge to build 200,000 starter homes, a plan of such economic incompetence that, to date, not a single starter home has been built.”
Gershon corruscating attack on Barwell’s record, and Clarion’s misjudgement for appointing him, continues. “It feels odd to make appointments of people who have made terrible decisions about how things should be run,” he says, stating that Barwell’s “specific failings on housing made him unelectable”.
Gershon states: “Under Barwell’s own housing policies, more than 1,000 people were made homeless in his former constituency, Croydon, in the year before the election – one of the main reasons he lost.”
And, according to Gershon, all Barwell’s “ideas and values are now stuck firmly in the past, from a time before the sector and regulatory focus swung back to safety and the needs of communities”.
Describing Barwell as “an unelected elite” when chief of staff at No10, Gershon writes that “a product of the meritocracy he is not”.
“It is unclear whether, at a basic level of competency, Barwell has demonstrated any ability to meet the regulatory requirements around Economic, Governance or Consumer standards, even before any consideration of any fundamental understanding about fire safety. A proven record of either ignoring or deliberately not listening to communities is at odds with the prevailing expectation at the regulator that [housing association] boards are accountable to residents,” Gershon writes.
And he explains: “Barwell has a long voting record of specifically making not just the financial circumstances for landlords worse, but a whole host of policies that have had far-reaching consequences for tenants and residents.
“Many of these are related to ‘welfare reforms’ that have seen a record 4 million children thrust into poverty; detached the rising costs of housing from benefits associated with them, especially for disabled people; and forced ideological conditionality testing into a host of areas now driving poverty among ‘vulnerable’ groups who would not be vulnerable if not for policy.
“At this time of year, many housing bodies are publicly dealing with a sharp rise in homelessness, food and fuel poverty, the resulting deterioration of the mental health of individuals, and the erosion of community cohesion that Barwell personally caused with his political voting record.
“Embedding these values of selfishness and disregard for the welfare of others at a board level is in sharp contrast to the values that the regulator is suggesting will be at the heart of its future decisions on governance.
“Finance, Governance, and Consumer Standards failings aside…. what else is there?
“The appointment of mediocre middle-aged and older white men to positions of responsibility may be one of the housing sector’s most long-standing traditions, but we must consider whether that necessarily makes it a good one.”
- Read Gershon’s 24Housing column in full here
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