Tuesday 18 February 2020 6:45 am

Why the housing minister merry-go-round is hurting the industry

When Boris Johnson sacked housing minister Esther McVey last week, people working in the sector could have been forgiven for reacting somewhat wearily.

Her replacement, Christopher Pincher, is the tenth person to hold the job in the last decade, and the nineteenth since 2000. It is, by some distance, the worst churn experienced by any government department over that period.

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Against this backdrop, it is difficult to see how those in the department can hope to get anything done. According to a report from the Institute for Government last month, excessive turnover of ministers “undermines good government” and means that departments “suffer constant changes in direction, crippling efforts at long-term reform and creating confusion and waste”.

This is especially true of housing ministers. In recent years, successive Prime Ministers have promised to fix a housing crisis which is underpinned by not having enough affordable homes to go around. But only two people have held onto the job for more than two years in the last 10 — Grant Shapps and Brandon Lewis. The list of recent holders sounds more like a pub quiz answer with each passing season.

To compound the issue, since housing was brought under the departmental umbrella of the renamed Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government in 2018, there have already been three secretaries of state at the helm: Sajid Javid, James Brokenshire, and Robert Jenrick.

As a result, a sense of frustration permeates across the industry. “There is a total incompatibility between the political cycles and the long-term aspects of housing, and appointing the tenth housing minister in the last 10 years makes a complete mockery of the role,” says Felicie Krikler, director at Assael Architecture. “The industry needs stability to make progress.”

Churn is especially bad for the housing sector, according to experts, because of how complex the brief is. It encompasses not only construction, but also finance, infrastructure, public services, and taxation. It is a policy area that touches people’s everyday lives perhaps more than any other.

Last year, the National Housing Federation estimated that 8.4m people in England live in an unaffordable, insecure or unsuitable home. Meanwhile, 2.5m are unable to afford their rent or mortgage, and about 400,000 people are either homeless or at risk of losing their home.

Government progress at fixing the problems has been slow. “We are not building enough homes in the right places quickly or cheaply enough,” says Peter Hardy, co-head of law firm Addleshaw Goddard’s housing sector practice. “Attempts to increase the proportion of affordable housing produced by private developers have struggled, and councils have left the market entirely.”

Meanwhile, nearly 1,000 days after the Grenfell Tower fire killed 72 people in 2017, fire safety remains an ongoing dilemma. Some 174 privately owned tower blocks are covered in similar cladding to that which caused the blaze to spread so quickly, and are yet to be remediated.

This is an issue which Pincher, a former IT consultant turned Conservative politician, has at least shown some engagement with in the past, after he assured his Tamworth constituents that he was looking into fire safety measures on local high-rises in a blog post on the subject shortly after the Grenfell blaze.

His voting record will also encourage some of the south east’s wealthier residents, after he opposed a mansion tax similar to the one which was reportedly set to feature in Sajid Javid’s Budget, before the chancellor resigned.

However, questions linger over his history on social housing. He has voted against raising housing welfare benefits to put them in line with prices, and in favour of reducing benefits for social tenants.

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Irrespective of his track record, Pincher will have his work cut out to dislodge the perception that his new role is a poisoned chalice. “The job is beginning to look as prone to mishap as Harry Potter’s defence against the dark arts teacher,” says Hardy.

“That the government seems not to value housing enough for a specialist minister to get to know the sector for more than 12 months at a time is a concern. Even the most diligent and talented minister will struggle to understand this complex sector in that amount of time ­— let alone come up with policies to do something about it.”

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