At one of his Cameron Direct events yesterday in Birmingham, David Cameron was asked about council houses by a lady who has two teenagers but only a two bedroom council flat. She has spent the last two years sleeping on a lilo, so her daughters can have rooms to themselves.
Cameron gave her a direct answer, which got him more headlines than he had perhaps bargained for. He suggested that we need to revisit the whole question of long term tenancies as people who families had flown the next could still stay in their four bedroom council house under the current system. He suggested that shorter term tenancies were the way forward. He also made clear that if the system was to change, the tenancies of current tenants wouldn't be affected.
I covered this on my LBC programme last night and the calls came flooding in. Grant Shapps came on to 'clarify' what the PM had said and made the point that there are 1.8 million people on housing waiting lists, so clearly something needs to be done and the current system isn't working. He was followed by Denis MacShane who agreed that it was good to have a debate but it was perhaps not best led by a multi property owning Eton Toff. I think it's called killing with kindness.
The callers were split down the middle with many accepting that housing need was more important than long term tenancy but others fearing this was the thin end of the wedge and the real agenda was to abolish council housing as we know it altogether.
MacShane also thought this was yet another example of Cameron shooting from the hip. I put it to him that it was a refreshing example of a politician answering directly a question which had been put to him by a member of the public. He conceded that he rather liked Cameron's approach, but it had caused so much trouble that he was bound to be pulled up by his advisers in the future.
My own view is that it probably was an off the cuff response, and that I doubt if it was at the top of Grant Shapps's in tray until yesterday evening. But so what? It is indeed a subject which we should debate, and whatever you think of what Cameron said, at least it's generated a discussion.
For what it's worth, I think we should go back to first principles and ask what we want out of social housing in the 21st century. Housing needs have radically changed since the first wave of massive council house construction. House building is at its lowest level since the mid 1920s so now is a good time to think about a longer term approach for social housing.