Robert Jenrick's offices-to-homes idea highlights cluelessness at heart of Government: Tom Richmond

Robert Jenrick epitomises those Ministers – and Shadow Ministers in the interests of fairness – who make policy up as they go along and hope for the best.

Robert Jenrick during a Covid briefing in March 2020 (Photo by Ian Vogler-WPA Pool/Getty Images)

The latest is the Housing Secretary’s pronouncement on the future of city centre office blocks if they remain unoccupied – or under-utilised – after Freedom Day on Monday.

Not wanting to waste a good crisis, Jenrick’s grand idea is to convert these dormant buildings into homes. “It will help us to do office-to-residential conversion, and meet our housing objectives on brownfield sites,” he opined.

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What Jenrick said contradicted the Prime Minister’s desire to reopen town and city centres. But it also revealed a wider cluelessness that is deeply disturbing for a blemished Cabinet Minister who would never have survived this long in any previous government.

Robert Jenrick during a reccent visit to Bolsover. Picture: Brian Eyre

Most modern office blocks have not been built with home living in mind. They’re open plan with one air conditioning system controlling entire floors.

Windows don’t open and there’s little noise insulation between each storey.

They’re invariably in locations where parking – a requirement for many families – is minimal and where there’s very limited provision of key amenities like GP surgeries and schools. Open space for recreation is also sparse.

All this leaves two questions that Jenrick has so far ignored in the best traditions of those politicians who choose to ‘wing it’.

First, who will pay for the conversion costs, especially at a time when his department is quibbling over the removal of dangerous cladding from high-rise buildings in the wake of the 2017 Grenfell Tower tragedy?

Second, would Jenrick be prepared to give up either of his two London residences, or his country pile in Herefordshire that was central to claims last year that he breached lockdown rules, to live in one of his remodelled tower blocks that he now advocates? Both need answering before he proceeds further with a policy that appears to lack foundations.

FIRST impressions count – and it would be remiss not to acknowledge the cleanliness of the Northern train as I ventured to Bradford the other day.

The first time I have used the train since lockdown, it was spotlessly clean – Transport Secretary Grant Shapps appears to have been as good as his word in this issue.

It was also on time (both ways). What had not changed, however, was the surliness of the staff – they were complaining (loudly) to each other about their shifts rather than helping passengers.

And this matters because they will need the wider support of the travelling public if they’re to persuade travellers to continue wearing face masks when public health restrictions are eased back next week.

It just struck me as yet another of those occasions when the railway industry makes a first class mistake – of not helping itself.

ON the subject of the railways, Transport Minister Chris Heaton-Harris should be totally embarrassed of himself.

It fell to him last week to respond to a Commons debate triggered by Nusrat Ghani, herself a former transport minister, on disability access at stations.

She explained how investing between one and three per cent of “total transport capital” between now and 2030 in “a fully step-free rail network” would help tens of thousands of disabled people to find work and boost the nation’s economic output by an estimated £1.3bn.

In a shameful response as the minutes ticked down to England’s Euro 2020 semi-final with Denmark, Heaton-Harris responded by saying that this was “possibly the second most televisual event” of the night and his light-hearted response would be peppered with football puns (none of which were funny or relevant).

Try telling that, Minister, to all those people who were expecting a more serious response because of their own health needs. It’s what Gareth Southgate would have done.

IN an open letter to Sir Keir Starmer, former Tory leader William Hague offers this advice: “The country needs a viable Labour party.”

Such counsel has resonance because it was the Yorkshireman’s misfortune to lead the Tories when Tony Blair was even more dominant of British politics than Boris Johnson is now.

What he did not mention, however, is authenticity, and how platitudes can backfire, like the awkward occasion when Hague sported a baseball cap to try and appear trendy to the young.

It’s the same with Starmer now. When he used football parlance to declare ‘Labour is coming home’ after the Batley and Spen by-election, he didn’t sound like he believed it.

And this despite being far more of commited football fan than the current PM who is even willing to sport an England shirt, with ‘Boris 10’ on the back, and appear to be a great disciple of the people’s game – which he is not.

FINALLY, there are some wonderfully whimsical gems in Life Lessons, the book that NHS fundraising legend Captain Sir Tom Moore was finishing just before Covid claimed the centenarian’s life.

Like how each day always began with a bowl of porridge. “Even when I was deep in the jungles of the Far East, in unbelievable heat with every kind of biting insect hungry for the taste of Yorkshire blood, I asked the Army cooks to make my porridge just the way this Dalesman liked it.”

Now I know where I’ve been going so wrong.

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