Seven big questions facing James Brokenshire

Originally posted on May 1 on my blog for Inside Housing.

New housing secretary James Brokenshire takes over at a critical time from Sajid Javid. With little previous experience of housing, he will have to make some crucial decisions in the weeks ahead, set the longer-term direction for policy and tackle what many Conservatives now see as a key political issue for them.

Here are seven big questions for him to address.

  • How will he follow Sajid Javid?

Brokenshire becomes the fourth Conservative secretary of state responsible for housing since 2010, following Eric Pickles, Greg Clark and Sajid Javid.

Javid has to go down as the best of the bunch (admittedly the bar is not set very high here) and he talked such a good game that he even changed the name of his department to include the word ‘housing’.

As Terrie Alafat says, his time in office saw an important shift in the narrative as housing became a top domestic priority.

But how much of it was just talk? Sajid Javid sometimes raised expectations and sometimes left the impression of doing just enough to look like he was doing something – and no more.

  • Will he be housing secretary or communities secretary?

The rebranding of DCLG as MHLG signalled not just a change of emphasis but a return to the days when Conservative ministers saw the role of government in housing as being about more than just setting the market free.

James Brokenshire himself says that ‘local government is in my blood’ – his father was chief executive of Epping Forest and Greenwich councils, a director of the Audit Commission and board member of the Local Government Commission – and that ‘some of the current debates about councils are ones that I had as a boy, believe it or not’.

However, the answer he gave to his first topical question at MHCLG questions on Monday suggested his focus: ‘I am delighted to have been appointed to this new role to deliver on housing—one of the Government’s top priorities is creating great places to live.’

  • Will he disavow the Right to Rent?

Brokenshire has not expressed much previous interest in housing but, as immigration minister at the Home Office from 2014 to 2016, he was responsible for one of the worst housing policies introduced since 2010 (and this time the bar is set very high).

A key part of the hostile environment to illegal immigration that has come back to bite the Conservatives in the Windrush scandal, the Right to Rent law forced landlords to check the right of prospective tenants to be in the country before letting property to them. If they get it wrong, landlords can face unlimited fines and up to five years in prison.

The scheme was piloted first in the West Midlands and the new housing secretary claimed that the checks were ‘quick and simple’ and that an evaluation had found no major differences between White British and BME tenants in accessing accommodation when he gave the go-ahead for its introduction across the country in 2015.

However, the research for the Home Office also found that landlords were instructing their letting agents not to let to ‘any foreigners’ and landlords complained that it effectively turned them into border guards.

And a review by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigrationin March found that Mr Brokenshire’s scheme ‘had yet to demonstrate its worth as a tool to encourage immigration compliance, with the Home Office failing to coordinate, maximise or even measure effectively its use, while at the same time doing little to address the concerns of stakeholders’. Ouch.

  • Will he revivify zombie Tory policies?

Speaking of bad policies, if Mr Brokenshire was listening carefully when he arrived for work yesterday he may have heard moaning and clanking of chains in the attic.

Locked away somewhere up there are some truly terrible ideas that right-wing think tanks convinced the Conservatives to turn into law.

Policies like 200,000 starter homes, the extension of the Right to Buy to housing association tenants and the high-value asset levy on council housing were manifesto commitments at the 2015 election so they could not be dropped altogether.

But under Sajid Javid they were put on the back burner, with an ever-delayed pilot of the Right to Buy extension, the budget for starter homes diverted into affordable housing and no sign yet of councils being forced to sell.

The new secretary of state would be well advised them to leave them locked in the attic behind a door marked ‘unworkable’ but these zombie policies remain on the statute book.

  • Will he step out of the Conservative comfort zone?

In his better moments, Sajid Javid seemed to understand that the government needs to go beyond the ‘fixing the broken housing market’ promised in last year’s white paper and look to the housing system as a whole.

The former secretary of state went public with a call for a £50 billion fund for rent to buy before the Autumn Budget last year and is reported to have wanted to raise borrowing caps on council housing. Both ideas were blocked by the Treasury.

Some Conservatives, such as former planning minister Nick Boles, are calling for even more radical action on housing amid fears that it was the issue that cost them an overall majority and could spell defeat at the next election.

In a recent editorial, The Spectator warned the Tories they had to ‘fix the housing crisis or lose power for ever’ and called for the wholesale adoption of Labour policies, including three-year private tenancies with regulated rents.

James Brokenshire faces a choice between doing what he is told and having a quiet life or challenging the status quo with policies like reform of compulsory purchase legislation that could threaten powerful Tory interests.

  • What will he do about Grenfell (1)?

Brokenshire and housing minister Dominic Raab face a credibility problem ahead of the anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire next month.

The departures of first Alok Sharma and then Sajid Javid leave the MHCLG without either of the ministers who personally assured tenants that their concerns would be heeded.

Javid admitted in March that the government is likely to break its promiseto permanently rehouse Grenfell survivors within a year.

James Brokenshire says that ‘one of my top priorities is going to be ensuring everyone affected by the Grenfell Tower fire gets the support they need and we learn lessons from the tragedy so something like this can never happen again’ but he will be the one in the firing line for that failure.

The new MHCLG team will also have to produce the social housing green paper soon and convince tenants more generally that all those roadshow events were worth it and that they were taken seriously.

  • What will he do about Grenfell (2)?

Ensuring Grenfell can never happen again means short-term action like ensuring that the 317 buildings with ACM cladding are safe and longer-term measures like changes to the building regulations.

An update last week showed that remediation work has only been completed on seven out of 158 social housing blocks.

Questioned about this slow progress, Sajid Javid tended to retreat into vague promises of funding ‘flexibilities’ and repeated statements that seemed more about denying liability than fixing the problem.

At MHCLG questions in March, he told Labour’s John Healey:

‘Despite what he has said, not a single council has been turned away. We are talking to every single council that has approached us, and we have made it clear that they will all be given the financial flexibility, if they need it, that will enable them to get the job done.’

On Monday Labour’s Melanie Onn told Mr Brokenshire:

‘Plymouth Community Homes says that its request for funding to replace cladding has been turned down, and it is not alone. We have heard the same thing from local authorities up and down the country. Will the Secretary of State update the House today on how many funding applications to replace cladding have been approved by his Department, in order to demonstrate that it is doing all it takes?’

Rather than repeat his predecessor’s careful lines, he told her: ‘I will investigate the specific question that she has raised and respond to her. Obviously our commitment remains to working with local councils on this important issue.’

Tory backbencher Peter Bottomley asked him about leaseholders in private blocks, and referenced his father’s work in getting cladding for a Greenwich tower block when he was chief executive there.

The son told him:

‘I would say clearly that the costs should not be passed on to leaseholders. They should be borne by the owners in the same way that local authorities and public sector buildings are maintaining that approach. I welcome the decision from one property developer, Barratt, to pay for remediation costs, and I hope that others will follow its lead.’

On the building regulations, the all-party Housing, Communities and Local Government committee called on Tuesday for a ban on the ‘clearly dangerous’ use of desktop studies of materials in high-rise buildings.

On that, plus the response to the Hackitt review, where will the new secretary of state strike the balance between safety for residents and costs to business?

Some hard choices lie ahead for James Brokenshire.


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