Jess McCabe

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A human encounter – Inside Housing latest

David Cameron’s friend and former advisor Steve Hilton has written a book calling for radical decentralisation of power from government to the people. Jess McCabe reportsSTEVE_HILTON_643p_643

Steve Hilton, former strategy director for David Cameron, has returned to London from his new home in Silicon Valley to shop around his new book about such things as decentralising policy-making, and ending poverty.

Mr and Mrs Cameron were snapped at the book launch. Inside Housing was invited to a slightly more prosaic stage in the publicity circuit: a breakfast chat with campaigners from organisations like the Local Government Association and 38 Degrees, in the airy offices of his publisher Penguin Random House.

We are in a boardroom that doesn’t look like a boardroom, or even an office – its warm white walls are dotted with books, and sun streams in from the rooftop balcony. It’s a suitable setting for a discussion of 45-year-old Mr Hilton’s book, More Human, subtitle: ‘Designing a world where people come first’.

Home comforts

Mr Hilton is presiding from the head of the table; like a new age transatlantic monk, he is dressed in shades of orangey brown, right down to his shoelaces – at least before he slips his trainers off. (During his time at Number 10, he was infamous for walking around in his socks. ‘I honestly find that so weird that people comment on that,’ he says, when a campaigner asks if his iconoclast image helped pioneer new ideas in government. ‘Maybe it’s because I’m Hungarian. To me it’s really weird and be indoors and wear shoes.’)

While advising the prime minister, Mr Hilton helped pioneer a number of influential policies that touched on the work of social landlords, including the Troubled Families programme to intervene in the lives of 120,000 families deemed the most chaotic in Britain. He’s also famous for inventing the faded concept of the Big Society. Mr Hilton’s parting shot on leaving in 2012 was reportedly to propose another £25bn in welfare cuts.

What insights can we glean about housing and the future from someone who has been at the heart of the Conservative Party? Is he yesterday’s man or is his latest thinking likely to prove as influential with Mr Cameron and have as great an impact on the sector as it has in the past?

The conversation spins from one topic to another, around the central argument of Mr Hilton’s book: the need for radical decentralisation of power, to local communities.

When one of the campaigners around the table points out that ‘if local government could just borrow to pay back loans at 5% we wouldn’t have a housing crisis in this country,’ Mr Hilton defers on the details, but says: ‘Everything you’re saying to me makes sense to me and is in tune with how I see it.’ Still, he is not much of a fan of local government as it is, instead arguing for elected mayors.

“I’ve left the government – I haven’t been in it for three years. I live in California and I’ve written a book.”

The ideas in the book have been greeted by a mixed reception from across the political landscape. Mr Hilton was the basis for TV comedy The Thick of It’s character Stewart Pearson, the bicycle-riding, cross-legged, herbal tea drinking Tory spin doctor. There is an episode when Tory ministers and staff are sent to a ‘mind camp’ by the Mr Hilton character, forced to sit in a circle and throw balls around. No idea is a bad idea. Some of the ideas in the book are, in fact, so Milquetoast it’s almost impossible to disagree with them – who’s going to say no to more empathy in policy-making?

Nonetheless, other ideas sound more compelling.

For starters, he argues that the country is not building enough homes and the ones that are built are not of good enough quality. ‘Homes, not housing,’ is the title for this chapter, which may as well have been lifted straight from the organisational description of a housing association.

The book also includes a chapter on how to ‘end poverty for good’ by implementing a living wage. And he would also build on the Troubled Families programme in order to bring one-to-one interventions into more people’s lives.

Icy atmosphere

After the group meeting, Inside Housing has been promised a brief interview. The atmosphere has so far been one of chatty openness. We sit down in his editor’s office for the one-on-one, and start with an introductory question about Mr Hilton’s background.

The veneer of mindfulness disappears stunningly fast. ‘I’m not particularly happy with it,’ he says of the question about where he grew up.

Mr Hilton suddenly seems to be trying to keep a lid on his anger. He objects to the photographer we have arranged who will be attending. He demands we find his assistant.

A quote from Mr Hilton’s book comes to mind. ‘Every time we extend empathy, society moves forward.’ A tendril of sympathy, if not exactly empathy, reaches out from my mind to Mr Hilton’s publicist.

We try and press ‘reset’ on the interview, and steer it back to the approved topic of housing policy. Does housing come up much in discussions at the centre of government? ‘Yeah, it’s a huge priority for the prime minister and for the government obviously, because it’s a real crisis for people that they can’t afford and find a home,’ he answers.

Does that include people in housing need, as well as owner occupiers? ‘Of course,’ Mr Hilton says. ‘I’ve left the government – I haven’t been in it for three years. I live in California and I’ve written a book,’ he adds tersely.

What does he think of the Right to Buy? ‘I think that the real problem in relation to housing is you’ve got this market which isn’t really a market. It’s controlled by a very small number of house builders,’ he responds incongrously.

Although Mr Hilton was happy to have a wondering conversation earlier, his caring-sharing mood of breakfast has evaporated. Even softball questions are rebuffed shortly. Our photographer is ramrod straight in his chair.

We’re not gleaning much about what the former advisor thinks about social landlords and their political quandaries. But this feels like a genuine encounter with Steve Hilton.

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