Comment is free, but facts are sacred.
The name for the Guardian’s wild west online outlet Comment Is Free comes from this quote by C.P. Scott in 1921. I’m not usually one to quote approvingly editors of the Guardian, not least the paper’s founding editor and patron saint, but this quote captures perfectly my frustration with much of Camden Council.
Sadly, I sometimes feel that Camden Council is a facts-free zone: where the governing party can pass whatever comment they want and guffaw at anyone that dares to present facts that contradict them. I’ve encountered this a number of times, on housing completions, crime statistics, academy performance, to name but a few. It happened again, and most infuriatingly so far, at yesterday’s full Council meeting.
As a statistics-hungry economist and Camden’s opposition Housing spokesperson, I often find myself delving into housing statistics. Fortunately, it’s the area of government (after finance and economics) that has the most statistics: ream after ream of figures to get one’s head around.
Statistics are priceless. Cynics and people that don’t understand numbers often trot out Benjamin Disraeli’s trite and tired line about “Lies, damned lies, and statistics”. But without statistics, you can’t establish facts, quantify the effect of policies, or gauge their cost-effectiveness.
In April, the ONS releases statistics on the dwelling stock in each local area, including how many properties are vacant – you can see 2016’s release here. As you can see in the ‘LA-owned vacants’ tab, Camden Council has the tenth-highest number of vacant council-owned properties in England and the fourth-highest number of vacant properties in London (only Ealing, Greenwich, and Lambeth have more).
I asked Labour’s Cabinet Member for Housing why this was and what plans there were to reduce that number. Sadly, despite the Cabinet Member having 10 days of notice of the question, she did not bother to look up the statistic or ask me for its source. Instead, she just denied such a statistic existed and claimed everything was perfect.
Well, everything’s not perfect. I don’t know why Camden’s local authority properties are now far more likely to be vacant than 12 years ago – that’s why I asked the question – but whatever the reason, it needs to be improved.
The proportion of vacant private-sector properties has fallen since 2004. The proportion of vacant Housing Association properties has fallen since 2004. Yet Camden now has more empty properties of its own. If 566 LA properties are vacant at any one time, that’s 566 families that don’t have homes.
This number has trebled since records began in 2004 – during which time both Labour and Conservative-Lib Dem coalitions have run both Camden and the national Government, which I noted in my question to the Cabinet Member, so it’s not even a party-political point. It’s just a question to establish the success of otherwise of Camden’s governance.
Statistics put things into context. They provide a ready metric of success. They can cut through your biases. Sadly, Camden’s Labour administration is far too reliant on its own biases rather than facts, which means they don’t recognise problems where they exist and that means they let down Camden residents. Comment is free, but a lack of facts has a price.