Return of the housing ministry

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on January 10.

What’s in a name? Only time will tell how important the change of departmental moniker will be but it was surely the minimum that Theresa May needed to do to show that housing now ranks as a top priority for her government.

The man in charge may still be the same (Sajid Javid) but both the creation of the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) and the order of the words in the title are significant.

By my reckoning this is the first time since 1970 that the word ‘housing’ has appeared in the title of the organisation and the secretary of state responsible for it.

In the 38 years since the Ministry of Housing and Local Government was abolished to create the Department of the Environment the name has been changed again and again to reflect different briefs and priorities.

Between Peter Walker back in 1970 and Sajid Javid in 2018 we’ve had 28 different housing ministers of middle and junior rank, a handful of them with the right to attend Cabinet but not vote in it.

You could argue this makes little difference. Whatever you may think of his policies, Javid has put housing near the top of his priorities since he was appointed even more so since the Grenfell fire.

You could pojnt out, rightly, that the DCLG was always a weak department in government and that the additional H will not make much difference when it is the Treasury that calls the shots.

Just look at what happened in the run-up to the last Budget, when Javid went public with a call for a £50 billion housing fund only for next to nothing to happen on the day itself.

And while we are asking what’s in a name, the appointment of yet another new Cabinet minister charge of welfare reform and universal credit could be just as significant for housing.

Things had been improving at the Department for Work and Pensions, with the u-turn on the LHA and concessions on universal credit.

But the return of Esther McVey does not bode well: in her previous spell in a more junior role at the DWP she was an enthusiastic cheerleader for the bedroom tax who once claimed it was all landlords’ fault for not knocking down enough walls to convert three-bedroom houses.

Against all that, though, here is a Conservative government (almost) doing what Labour promised in its manifesto at the last election.

True, Labour said a Department for Housing without the other acronyms but local government goes with it if you believe in council housing.

Yes, Labour would have done it on Day 1 rather than wait 18 months, but better late than never.

Why not steal more idea from the opposition and create an independent Office for Housing Delivery to work alongside it to monitor progress?

You could argue that the change as only skin deep if Sajid Javid and (I assume) Alok Sharma keep their old jobs with slightly different titles but what was the alternative?

Javid is part way through consultation on the housing white paper and Sharma is still listening to tenants ahead of the social housing green paper – so changing either now would simply swing housing’s revolving door around again and break continuity.

And the comparison between this reshuffle and previous ones where the housing job was downgraded to junior minister level speaks volumes.

(Added January 16: in the event, I under-estimated the power of the revolving door. Alok Sharma moved to the DWP and replaced by Dominic Raab. All that listening only goes so far, it seems.)

As for the switch to ‘Ministry’, that may seem irrelevant or even anachronistic but the years of housing being run by a ‘Department’ have not exactly been a conspicuous success.

And maybe a blast from the past is appropriate at a time the latest Ipsos MORI issues index shows that voters rank housing almost as high in importance as they did in 1974?

The acid test for the new ministry will be delivery – to tackle the housing crisis rather than carry on making it worse.

Whatever it says on the front door, that means recognising that the plans set out in the white paper, and the spending plans approved in the Budget, do not remotely go far enough.

Over to you, MHCLG. What’s in a name?

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