Interview: Jack Dromey MP, Shadow Housing Minister

Could have done better 

Shadow housing minister Jack Dromey MP is scathing about the Government’s record on housing, but admits that politicians of all parties have failed to give the issue the attention it deserves. He told Mark Cantrell it’s time that housing was taken to the centrestage of politics

First published in Housing magazine 

Jack Dromey MP
“THROUGHOUT my life a guiding principle has been to make a difference,” said Jack Dromey. For over 30 years he followed its star as a trade union activist, so he’s no stranger to fighting some tough battles, but it also took him into the political fray long before he actually stood for and won a parliamentary seat.

Today, the former deputy general secretary of the old Transport and General Workers Union (T&G) and subsequently the union Unite, represents Birmingham’s Erdington constituency, having secured the seat with a 3,277 majority at the May 2010 General Election.

Despite being a relative newcomer to the Parliamentary arena, Dromey’s involvement in politics goes back a long way. He is cited as one of two trade union modernisers active inside the Labour Party to rebuild the party in the 1980s; once again a necessary task following “what was a serious election defeat”.

Doubtless, he will be drawing upon his long experience of trade union activism and Labour Party politics in this second round of rebuilding.

“I’ve been deeply involved in politics for 20 years and more,” he said. “I served on the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party, I was its elected Treasurer for six years, and also through my work in the union, I’ve been deeply involved fighting battles in the political arena.”

Of these battles, one of his early highlights, and the one through which he rose to prominence in the trade union movement, was during the 1970s, when he led the historic Grunswick strike for union recognition.

Much more recently, his campaigning for workers’ rights saw him coordinate the coalition of support that brought the Gangmasters Licensing Bill into law, “so that never again in Britain do we have the obscenity of Morecambe Bay”.

When it comes to housing, again he’s no stranger to the issues. He chaired the working group from 2005 that subsequently led to the 2007 Housing Green Paper and eventually the commitment to invest £8 billion to build three million new homes. He then worked with John Healey during his tenure as Housing Minister.

Now he himself holds the housing brief, albeit in a shadow capacity, and it is doubtless no surprise that he is an ardent defender of the Labour Party’s record on housing during its 13 years in office – but he admits that it could have done more.

“Labour did great things – but,” he said, letting the pause say its thing before he elaborated: “There were two million new homes, a million more mortgage holders, half a million new affordable homes, the 1.7 million homes renovated through the Decent Homes programme, and the action that we took in 2008, both to build homes and get the economy moving, but also to keep people in their homes, avoiding the terrible scourge of mortgage repossessions that scarred the 1980s. Having said that, we did not do enough, but I will defend our record any time compared to the failure of this Government’s housing and economic policies.”

When the Government launched its Housing Strategy last year, Dromey greeted it as yet another round of “false dawns, grand plans and press launches followed by broken promises and a failure to deliver”; the NewBuy Guarantee mortgage indemnity scheme launched earlier this year, was “too little too late” from a Government that has done “virtually nothing to tackle the worst housing crisis in a generation”. For good measure, in Dromey’s view, not only is David Cameron’s coalition “failing”, it’s also “out of touch” and “making the housing crisis worse not better”.

Here, he returned to the theme: “There is not yet a serious housing strategy. Some initiatives with some merit, but more often press statements and initiatives that never go anywhere. If there was a home built in England for every press statement issued by Grant Shapps, we wouldn’t have a housing crisis. So there’s a great deal of activity, and sometimes sound and fury, but the statistics speak for themselves. Housebuilding has remorselessly fallen.”

The construction of new homes is down by 11 per cent, he said, whilst homelessness is up by 14 per cent; there is a “mortgage market where people are not able to get mortgages and a private rented sector characterised by ever-increasing rents”.

“I don’t think the Government takes housing sufficiently seriously,” he added. “It’s not enough for David Cameron and Nick Clegg to don Wellington boots and visit a building site in a fanfare of publicity when they launched their housing strategy last November. You need a serious strategy driven from the top. What we do not have, given that Britain faces the biggest housing crisis in a generation, is any sense of housing getting the priority it deserves. On the contrary, Eric Pickles and Grant Shapps have lost virtually all the battles that they have fought within Government for support on housing.”

The problems he discusses as a politician with a nationally-focused brief on the Opposition benches take flesh in a more immediate and personalised sense in his capacity as MP – a role he says very much influences his presence on the national stage.

“In everything I do, I always refer back to local people, local experiences, because the first job for any Member of Parliament is to stand up for their constituents. In that context, Erdington is one of the 12 poorest constituencies in Britain, but it is rich in talent. Sadly, Erdington is suffering grievously the consequences of Government policy,” he said.

“On the housing front, there is an acute lack of affordable housing and a rapidly growing private rented sector. Yes, there are some good landlords, but there are many rogues ripping tenants off and failing to maintain the premises that they own. The scale of Birmingham’s housing crisis is demonstrated by one statistic: we’re going to need 70,000 new homes in the next 10 years to meet the growing demand.”

Dromey is supportive of the council’s creation of the Birmingham Municipal Housing Trust, which is planning to build some 1, 400 new council homes, but he’s critical of the council’s management of its stock, which he said “leaves a great deal to be desired”.

All told, the Erdington MP sees Birmingham as a microcosm for the problems caused by the housing crisis locally and nationally. It’s not just the result of the current Government’s failure on housing – it is one that relates to his admission that Labour could have done more. In his view, politicians and governments of all hues have failed to give housing sufficient priority for over 25 years. We’re paying the price for that failure now.

So, Dromey is scathing about the current administration’s record, but what has the Labour Party got to offer the country? For now, little concrete; make more use of public sector land, both local authority and central government; ensure that the freedoms gained under HRA reform are able to provide concrete results in terms of new homes; invest in affordable housebuilding; and ensure that housing finally gets the attention it deserves at the centre-stage of government policy.

Beyond that, it’s a case of watch this space. Over the next six to nine months, he said Labour will present its package of housing proposals as part of its ‘battleplan’ for the 2015 election. Whether the country can afford to wait that long is open to question, but in fairness that one is out of Dromey’s hands.

“Our first duty is to meet the immense and growing demand for affordable housing to buy and to rent,” Dromey said. “One again, we have to make housing centrestage in Britain.”

This interview was published in the May 2012 edition of Housing magazine, and subsequently re-published on the Housing Excellence website, 23 May 2012. 

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