Grant Shapps is a former Chairman of the Conservative Party and MP for Welwyn Hatfield.
This afternoon at the Houses of Parliament we’re going to be launching the Homes for Heroes Foundation, in response to the results of an investigation that shows a bias against veterans in the housing market.
A hundred years ago, David Lloyd George famously promised soldiers returning from the battlefields of Europe that they would have ‘homes fit for heroes’. This was followed by the Housing Act of 1919, which made available government subsidies for a major postwar social housing programme.
Today, many servicemen and women leave the armed forces after years of serving their country in the most dangerous parts of the world – only to face on their return an uphill battle to find a home for themselves and their families. There are several reasons for this: some veterans suffer permanent physical injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder; others are healthy in body and spirit but have sacrificed the opportunity to put down roots, whilst serving abroad.
We want to change this. The aim of this new Foundation is that by the time we reach the centenary of the 1919 Housing Act, we want Britain to have the finest housing package for returning armed forces of any country in the world. This is going to be a cross-party campaign alongside key military figures and across the housing industry.
Joining me on the advisory panel of the Foundation is General Lord Richards, former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Robertson, former Secretary General of NATO and fellow MP, Jake Berry, who has 15 years’ legal experience in the housing sector and was the driving force in bringing us together and setting up the Foundation.
The Armed Forces Covenant has highlighted the moral obligation our nation owes to its armed forces and made great progress in addressing the disadvantages that the armed forces community often faces. But our investigation so far shows that the Covenant is not always properly applied when it comes to housing and in many cases either greater provision or the removal of disadvantage is required in order to ensure the fair treatment of serving and former military personal.
For example, preliminary evidence suggests that some local authorities have shown themselves unwilling to prioritise housing for former servicemen and women and their families who are homeless. They are also failing to apply statutory guidance that I introduced as Housing Minister in 2012 with regard to the lack of residency qualification of veterans. At this point, it is difficult to say whether this is due to a lack of knowledge or to a conscious decision on the part of local authorities. In any case, we intend to call for a full review of the housing policy so that councils know what their obligations are and the expectations that must be met.
Concerns also remain about the provision of adapted houses for seriously injured servicemen and women. The current policy requires that expenditure for the adaptation of a house be approved before the injured person has left the Service, leading to hasty and often unwise decisions about the choice of house and location. Surely it is only reasonable that they should be given a longer period of time to discuss the situation with their families and to adapt to their new physical circumstances before making such a permanent decision. There is no doubt that the policy needs to be amended to allow greater time and flexibility.
As for the Foreign and Commonwealth personnel in our armed forces, there is evidence that some are encountering difficulties staying in Britain after they cease to serve. The ‘right to remain’ procedure is relatively straightforward but needs to be arranged before discharge and it appears that some are not given this advice. There needs to be greater flexibility in administering this procedure to avoid these loyal servicemen and women being thrown out of the country for which they have fought and where they should be entitled to stay.
In addition to looking at the housing concerns of our own veterans, we’re going to be investigating the housing provisions that other countries, particularly NATO members, make for their returning military personnel, in order to see what lessons can be learned. It may be that Britain is in the forefront in this field but that doesn’t mean there are not improvements that we can, and should, make.
The Armed Forces Covenant was a great start but we must go further. We want to persuade every housebuilder, every mortgage lender, every local authority and housing association not only to sign up to the Covenant but to honour its spirit too. In the run-up to 2019, the Home for Heroes Foundation intends to have all the elements in place to honour Lloyd George’s vision – updated for the 21st Century. The brave men and women of today have fought for their country, just as their ancestors did. Now the Homes for Heroes Foundation is going to fight for them and ensure that, when they return, they will have a place to call home.