Looking for clues

Originally published on July 26 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

After a month of turmoil and political change, suddenly everything is on hold.

I was on holiday for the week that saw yet another new housing minister and a concerted effort by housing organisations to persuade Theresa May’s new government to change course but also the non-appearance of crucial details of previous policies.

The delays obviously reflect the political fall-out from the Brexit vote followed by the appointment of a new prime minister and an almost entirely new Cabinet. Old certainties have gone, apparently including the entire economic framework for policy, but the outlines of the new approach remain unclear.

As I blogged before I went away, Theresa May’s speeches during the brief Conservative leadership campaign can be read in two different ways. Signs of change on, for example, workers on company boards do not necessarily mean change everywhere.

Do her comments on housing signal a new ‘One Nation’ approach or one that continues to see the housing crisis solely in terms of home ownership? Is it to be business as usual or will the government listen to the critique of the previous Tory government published by an influential House of Lords committee?

I’ll be looking at some of the options in blogs to come but in the meantime last week brought some clues from new housing minister Gavin Barwell. At his first communities and local government questions he reasserted the government’s commitment to a million new homes and reaffirmed the sanctity of the Green Belt. But he also offered this teasing hint of something new in response to a question from a Conservative MP (which may be significant, as Martin Wheatley just pointed out to me on Twitter) about investment in social rented homes:

‘He tempts me into decisions that will ultimately be for the Government and for the Chancellor at the next Budget, but he makes a powerful case for further investment in affordable housing.’

 

However, that Budget will not come until the Autumn Statement, perhaps as late as November, and discussions about this are part of a wider debate about the need for a fiscal stimulus and ‘reset’. That is brought into even sharper focus by the fact that that Barwell’s new boss Sajid Javid was part of the Stephen Crabb leadership ticket that proposed £100 billion of new government bonds to fund infrastructure, schools, prisons and housing. The potential is certainly there for a change of approach but will it be fulfilled?

Meanwhile crucial questions left hanging from the last parliamentary session were left unanswered before MPs went on their holidays.

Most obviously the announcement on future funding of supported housing that was confidently expected last week was delayed until ‘early Autumn’. A government-commissioned review of costs that was expected in March has still not been published. The delay may just be a product of the turnover in ministers at DWP, DCLG and Treasury but it can hardly be good news that anticipated new exemptions from the LHA cap did not materialise. The sector will be in limbo for several more months.

There was no news either on key regulations and guidance for the Housing and Planning Act that were also expected before the recess. Local authorities preparing for more information on policies including higher value sales, Pay to Stay and the end of secure tenancies now have to wait a few more months. Given the furore in the Lords over how much was being left to regulations, the delay is disappointing at best and a signal of where housing ranks in importance on the post-Brexit agenda.

As for its place in May’s One Nation agenda, former No 10 policy advisor and Policy Exchanger Alex Morton had some interesting musings on the Conservative Home website last week. Whether anyone is listening to someone who worked for the forgotten David Cameron and a think tank associated with the exiled Michael Gove and Nick Boles remains to be seen but Morton makes the point that every Tory MP linked increasing home ownership to the Conservatives electoral prospects at a recent away day.

And what of the new minister? Most of the profiles of Gavin Barwell so far have mentioned that housing does not appear in his list of parliamentary interests. The timing of his appointment (overnight on a Sunday) and the fact that London has been added to Brandon Lewis’s housing and planning portfolio might be seen as more signals of housing’s importance in the new regime.

At first sight Barwell appears to be an archetypal ‘Tory Boy’ who started working for the Conservatives straight after leaving university and did nothing else until he became MP for Croydon Central in 2010. He retained his ultra-marginal seat in 2015 thanks in part to a plethora of campaigns (including on development on the Green Belt) that prompted his local paper to accuse him of ‘headline grabbing’. This was one of the details mysteriously deleted from Wikipedia ahead of the last election by a computer inside parliament.

However, if you dig a little deeper his CV includes more experience in housing that you might think. Under John Major’s Tory government he spent two years as a special adviser to environment secretary John Gummer and housing minister David Curry. As such, he was intimately involved in the 1996 Housing Act and its watering down of the homelessness legislation.

Under the coalition government, he served on the public bill committee scrutinising the detail of the Localism Act in 2011. He emerged from that as a strong supporter of localism in planning, claiming that Labour’s Jack Dromey supported policies that allowed central government to ‘overrule the wishes of the people of Birmingham’. He was also PPS to Greg Clark for two years under the coalition. Given the faultline running through the Conservative Party on localism – between supporters of and objectors to new homes – this will be an issue worth watching.

Barwell also strongly supported the Localism Act’s changes to the homelessness legislation and made this comment about the introduction of flexible tenancies:

‘If I were a housing minister I would not use these provisions in the vast majority of cases, although here are cases in which I would not give a lifelong tenancy.’

Five years on he really is a housing minister but in very different circumstances. The voluntary flexible tenancies that he would not use in 2011 will now be compulsory in the vast majority of cases for new tenants under the Housing and Planning Act.

But the more some things change, the more others stay the same. Barwell’s first press release as housing minister welcomed figures from the English Housing Survey showing that ‘the number of people owning their own home has stopped reducing for the first time since 2003’.

The statement ranged between the questionable and the downright misleading but it did not stop the new minister boasting that:

‘We are determined to ensure that anyone who works hard and aspires to own their own home has the opportunity to do so.’

This signals two things to me. First, persuading the minister to modify the previous regime’s one-tenure approach to housing may prove to be an uphill struggle. Second, he has already grasped one of the essential skills for the job: the creative use of statistics.

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2 Comments on “Looking for clues”

  1. Caesar says:

    Excellent piece.


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