Opinion: His nibs

Many of you wonder if Alistair actually reads all the books on the shelves behind him on First Things First. We think it’s a stock image but here’s his attempt to explain himself. What do you reckon?

In last week’s video I covered Denis Healey’s scepticism about data. He guessed the numbers for troop movements at Swindon station during the war, so he suspected everyone else of doing the same thing. That’s why Healey never trusted official figures when he became the chancellor of the exchequer. And he was right to do so. If the Treasury had given him more accurate numbers Healey would never have needed to go cap in hand to the International Monetary Fund for a bailout.

This is just one of many brilliant insights in his autobiography, The Time of My Life. That book came out in 1989 and he was already warning about condensation and black mould in council housing. Tenants were complaining to Healey as their local MP in the same way they go to Kwajo Tweneboa today.

The data that governments rely on get a right hammering by John Lanchester in this month’s London Review of Books. It doesn’t look as though things have improved since Healey’s time. Lanchester romps through no less than four new tomes on statistics to pull out some of the best howlers.

George Osborne justified his austerity cuts by citing a Harvard study that claimed that high government debt would shrink the economy. There was a famous book called What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School. As it turns out, what they don’t teach you at Harvard is how to count. The so-called elite economists had missed out five rows of data by accident. If they had used the full data from the start, they would’ve seen that countries with debt to GDP over 90% were not in fact shrinking. By the time the truth came out Osborne was committed to austerity, so he ploughed on regardless.

He was not the only Tory to be wrongfooted by dodgy data. As Lanchester says, all we have are “wild guesses” about levels of immigration. That’s right: we still count people in much the same the way Healey did at Swindon all those years ago. Theresa May triggered her “hostile environment” when the ONS told her there were 100,000 foreign students overstaying. Turns out the true figure was around 4,600, which the ONS could have been a lot closer to if they spoke to anyone in higher education.

As it happens, Theresa May has got a new book out too. I’d heard good things about May from her local housing association, so I was keen to read it. Thankfully, she regrets the use of the term “hostile environment”.  But she did not invent the phrase. May borrowed it from Labour’s immigration minister, Liam Byrne. He was the one that left the idiotic note for the new government in 2010 saying “I’m afraid there’s no money” – which Osborne pounced upon to justify his cuts.

There’s a chapter on Grenfell in May’s book. She was the prime minister at the time and was clearly shocked by the disaster. As you would expect, May sets out the steps she took to toughen up housing regulation to stop anything like that happening again.

Two of May’s points interest me.

She bemoans our lack of knowledge over how tall buildings work. As we know, it’s worse than that. There ain’t no data on the quality of housing management and maintenance full stop. That was one of the austerity cuts. Today, we’re still in the world of “wild guesses”. Let us hope the new Tenant Satisfaction Measures help here.

May also slams those in power that view tenants as second-class citizens. How did we ever get to this point? It wasn’t always like that.

Now, I’m grateful to Stephanie Kelley of Thirteen for posting online a thesis from 1979 by Robert Ryder covering house building in County Durham between 1900 and 1939. What an inspiring contrast with today. Theresa May shows what happens when we ignore or patronise tenants. Back in the day the miners in Durham were having none of that. So, 125 years ago they formed their very own Durham Aged Mineworkers’ Association.

The most successful measure to build council homes in the data unearthed by Ryder was the Wheatley Act of 1924. For many, it’s the crowning glory of the first Labour government. Can Keir Starmer dust it off and bring back the old magic? Will the CIH run a campaign for more truly affordable homes to celebrate the centenary of John Wheatley’s work? The answer then and now is subsidy.


I would say I have got a lot out of my reading this week. What do you think? Should these books and articles be on the syllabus for the new professional qualifications that May has called for?

Stop press: Doctor Janis Bright has just pulled A New Century of Social Housing by Lowe and Hughes from her shelves. It turns out that the Wheatley Act resulted in 500,000 new council homes over eight years.