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Friday 19th
posted by Morning Star in Features

As the former communities minister pours himself into a tuxedo to backslap developers, millions are still suffering from his policies, writes SOLOMON HUGHES

HOW the mighty have fallen: Eric Pickles was a cabinet minister in charge of local government — including the vital housing brief — from 2010 until David Cameron sacked him last May, straight after the election.

Now Pickles is reduced to scrabbling around for the odd £2,000 hosting back-slapping awards ceremonies for property developers.

That’s two grand on top of Pickles’s £67,000 salary (plus expenses) for being MP for Brentwood and Ongar.

Pickles lists his £2,000 award ceremony gig, which took place in December, in the current Register of MPs’ Interests. He says it took just four hours, including travel time and preparation, so that’s not a bad rate.

The International Property Media awards are a self-congratulatory night out for the property industry, ranging from the very high end to the merely smart. Pickles gave an award to Higgins Homes —based, like he is, in Essex.

It’ll sell you a one-bedroom flat in Peckham for £415,000. That’s way beyond most people’s means, but can be supported by the government’s subsidise-the-well-off scheme, help to buy. Pickles also presented an award to Enterprise Property Group Ltd. It could sell you a big £2 million house on the outskirts of Cambridge. Again, not much help for the housing crisis.

Pickles’s lucrative evening out doesn’t just show a bit of a tacky side to a former government minister — a man once in charge of a great office of state doing an Alan Partridge-style corporate turn.

It also shows how, with all the money that the Tories allowed to slosh around the overpriced property industry, a little of it sloshes back into their own pockets.

Properties are wildly overvalued because the government has allowed shortages to grow. For most of the 20th century, governments kept the failing housing market in check by building “social housing” — council houses.

Blairite and then Tory governments stopped this, and the result is profits for the developers from small numbers of overpriced units, and misery for most people who pay too much for too little.

Pickles was very much part of this. When Cameron sacked Pickles, he gave him a knighthood for his “efforts” on the housing crisis. But as journalist Hannah Fearn — an experienced observer of the housing business — wrote, Pickles “fought tirelessly to block, delay and reduce funding for the building of affordable homes in the UK.”

One of the few remaining sources of social housing was “planning gain,” where developers had to build a few lower-rent houses in return for planning permission. Pickles allowed the rules to change and bend so developers could easily escape these responsibilities. Now he’s squeezing into a tuxedo for £500 an hour handing them awards.

I thought Labour’s new party political broadcast on housing was rightly hard-hitting. But I wonder if it should have made more of the positive case for the government building houses, as well as exposing the negatives of the housing shortage.

Because it doesn’t have to be this way. In the past, governments — mostly Labour governments — have dealt with housing shortages. Working with councils, they built hundreds of thousands of houses a year. The projects weren’t always perfect, but many of the houses we still have now, for sale and for rent, would not exist without those government building programmes.

It was a sensible investment: housing shortages ended. Housing prices stabilised across the market — even for private renters or those buying more expensive properties. Good jobs were created building the houses. Local authorities got long-term assets and income. We need to do that again to control the financial crisis. We “bailed out” the banks. Now we need to make a similar investment in society.