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Left hand, right hand

Published 01 March 2024

Whatever next – a detailed, compassionate and intelligent Conservative approach to homelessness. Caroline Spelman clearly knows her stuff. Whether her shadow cabinet colleagues know it is a different matter. Interview by Will Wiles

A copy of the Big Issue is prominently displayed on a table in Caroline Spelman's Westminster office. Dominating the opposite wall is a poster about the victims of landmines. The shadow secretary of state for the ODPM is obviously unafraid to wear her heart on her sleeve. Right away, Spelman is enthusiastically describing a £1 million hole in the accounts of John Prescott's department that she is doggedly working to expose.

This energy is undimmed by the fact that for all the nine years that Spelman has been in parliament, her party has been out of power. If anything, she appears to be enjoying herself. ‘Being in opposition is sometimes an advantage because you can learn the ropes,’ she says. ‘You can observe the party in power and learn from their mistakes. Intellectually, it’s a very stimulating time, because you get the chance to think afresh about how to approach some of the intractable problems that perhaps in government you can get sorted. It’s quite a liberating time.’   It is also, she says, an exciting time to be a Conservative, right in the midst of new leader David Cameron’s frenzied ideological spring-cleaning. ‘Politics,’ she says, ‘is interesting again.’

So, in line with the radical policy reversals seen in recent weeks, what can we expect from the Cameron Conservatives in housing? The abolition of the right to buy and a massive council house-building programme?

‘Those are simplistic solutions to a problem that is actually more complex,’ Spelman says, earnestly. ‘If you look at the underlying causes of homelessness, the primary causes are family breakdown and domestic violence. You’re not going to solve those problems with a house-building programme.’ Instead, Spelman says that we should make better use of existing social housing. ‘Often, through no fault of their own, someone is in need of social housing, and quite rightly they should be provided with it, but we don’t review their circumstances a decade later when things have changed, life has re-ordered itself, children are a bit older, and they are managing to go out to work and receive an income where they could start on the property ladder with shared-ownership provision.’

Is that a glint of Blue – a disdain for social housing in all circumstances? Does this mean that the sole end of all government housing policy should be to move people into owner-occupation? ‘But that’s what 90 per cent of the population would like, when asked,’ Spelman says, forcefully. ‘I’m only responding to listening to the public. We will always need social housing, and I think there will always be a demand for new homes to be built, although there are questions of sustainability and where they should go.’

Hailing from rural Essex (she spent much of the 1980s representing the interests of beet-growers), Spelman is understandably unhappy with greenfield development. She says that the growth of commuter estates and the revival of the urban cores have created ‘collars of decline’ around city centres. ‘I’ve got a great desire to see suburban revival,’ she says, with characteristic rapid-fire urgency. ‘I think there’s a huge opportunity for a 21st-century revival of near-city community living.’

Spelman’s passion for her brief is undeniable. She rapidly checks through areas that she considers in need of urgent attention – family breakdown, in particular. Another recurring theme is encouraging self-reliance, restoring the economic rationale of communities as the focus of regeneration and getting people into work.

These two issues combine in a somewhat unexpected manner in what she considers the great failing of Labour housing policy. It starts with family breakdown. Most often, she says, it is the father of a family who walks out and goes to stay with family or friends.‘Eventually they get a one-bedroom flat from the local authority, but then they get the issue of children coming to visit and having to sleep on the sofa.

‘Politicians have got to prioritise vulnerable children, but the consequences can be seen in the hostels, and my local hostels are full of single men. Some of them have been there for years, and they come to me because it’s difficult to hold down a regular job from their temporary accommodation.’ This single-mindedness on the part of the government is the real failure of the Labour approach, she says, and wants the issue of hidden male homelessness brought right up the political agenda. However, she feels the best way of doing this is with a cross-party approach. Spelman says that this cooperation precedes the Cameroonian revolution, but the new rhetoric of compassion clearly suits her.

But joined-up government creates knotty problems. Less than a week after ROOF interviewed Spelman, Conservative housing policy underwent a fresh ideological spasm as shadow chancellor George Osborne announced a fundamental rethink of the party’s policy on building on greenfield sites, at odds with both Spelman’s position and the party’s 2015 manifesto. Politics certainly is more interesting under Cameron.