I have a pretty lame joke which I use rather too often. It’s the one that says that an annual task for me is the induction of a new housing minister. No, not very funny. Now, though, I can update it. It seems I now have to do this twice a year.
By David Orr, Chief Executive of the National Housing Federation
12 January 2018
I’ve been doing this job for a bit over 12 years. In that time, only two ministers – Yvette Cooper and Grant Shapps – have stayed for over two years, filling the post for about five and a half years between them. The other seven years have seen nine housing ministers. Every one of them has asserted how delighted they are to be in post and how critical they think the job is. They get to know their civil servants, begin to build relationships with people like me, start to get their thinking in gear – and then they’re gone. I know this is the way the Government works but it is hard not to rock confidence in the Government’s stated commitment to housing. If ever there was a policy topic that requires continuity and long term thinking, this is it.
The most recent change is particularly frustrating. Alok Sharma was confronted on day two of his tenure with the appalling tragedy of Grenfell. I think he rose impressively to the challenge, spending time at the Westway Centre, meeting and talking to people. He then started a process of engaging with tenants around the country in a more systematic way than any housing minister I’ve ever met. Of course there will be notes of these meetings and civil servants were also there, so the information will not be lost. What will be lost though is the direct political connection that Alok made which really should have been central to the political thinking about the forthcoming Green Paper.
I’ve not yet met Dominic Raab. I look forward to doing so. I have no doubt that he will approach the task seriously and with commitment. But every change runs the danger of losing momentum as a new minister gets up to speed not just with the identification of the issues but understanding the detail of the challenge.
And just in case anyone is in any doubt, that challenge remains considerable. We have a broken housing market. We are not building nearly enough new homes. Too many people are living in insecure, expensive rented accommodation, with too many of those spending 50% or 60% or more of their income on rent. We have a major challenge of economic and housing regeneration in many low value housing markets. We still need to improve the energy efficiency of our existing homes and post-Grenfell and there is a compelling need to ensure that we are fully confident that our homes are safe. We have growing numbers of homeless people. A ministerial task force has been set up, to be chaired by Marcus Jones, and is just about to have its first meeting. Not with Mr Jones though. He’s been moved too and become a Conservative Party Vice Chair.
It would be tempting to assume that politicians don’t really matter in all this. Tempting – but wrong. Our politicians are the only ones who can make the big public investment decisions or decide to change the way the land market operates or invest in programmes like the rough sleepers initiative, a programme supported by governments of left and right for over 20 years and which led to a position by 2010 where there really was no requirement for a second night out.
Housing associations and our colleagues and partners in local government will continue to do everything they can to meet the demands of this huge agenda. We will keep building and regenerating, and we will invest in local support and homelessness services. We will build new homes for people who need support to lead fulfilling and independent lives in the community. And we will, of course, seek to build a constructive working relationship with Mr Raab and with other new ministers.
I genuinely believe that the Prime Minister cares about fixing our broken housing market. The renaming of the key government department to the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government is a strong statement of intent. The fact that Sajid Javid remains in post will provide some of the continuity we need. But it would be good if we could build a relationship with a housing minister which lasts for longer than an average football season.