Enter Esther McVey

Originally posted on July 25 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Whichever way you look at it this reshuffle looks like a disaster for social housing and social tenants.

On Monday I predicted that government regime change would shift the focus back to home ownership and joked that the worst nightmare would be Jacob Rees-Mogg as housing secretary.

Wednesday saw Boris Johnson make his first speech as prime minister and lay out a long and expensive list of priorities that did not include housing.

That was followed by an extensive reshuffle that saw junior Treasury minister Robert Jenrick become housing secretary and my worst nightmare trumped by the appointment of Esther McVey as housing minister.

And this morning Inside Housing reports that the Johnson government is indeed considering a switch back from the cautious return to social rent with a new programme of part rent-part buy.

Looking for silver linings in all this, Jenrick may be little known (only elected to parliament in 2015 and the youngest minister in the Cabinet at just 37)  but he does have some experience in housing issues.

As exchequer secretary at the Treasury his brief included infrastructure delivery in general and the Oxford to Cambridge Arc in particular and as MP for Newark he campaigned against outrageous fees charged by housebuilders and management companies.

He also expressed a clear preference for home ownership with a call for homes to be built on public land and sold at cost to the under-40s.

That, combined with Sir Edward Lister apparently being both Boris Johnson’s chief of staff and chair of Homes England, suggests some continuity with the housebuilding agenda of the previous regime but with a different emphasis.

As one indication of the speed of Robert Jenrick’s rise up the greasy pole, just four years ago he was McVey’s parliamentary private secretary (bag carrier) when she was employment minister at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). Now he is her boss.

If that is not enough to put the new housing minister’s nose seriously out of joint, then maybe she will also reflect on the contrast between her fate and that of one of her predecessors.

Dominic Raab was appointed housing minister in the same January 2018 reshuffle that saw McVey become secretary of state for work and pensions.

He soon became Brexit secretary but both of them resigned from the government in November 2018 over Theresa May’s deal and both of them stood unsuccessfully to become Conservative leader.

Now he is back as foreign secretary, one of the top three jobs in government below prime minister, while she is a mere minister of state attending Cabinet.

However, outside of the prospect of the new housing minister being interviewed by Lorraine Kelly, that’s all I’ve got in terms of silver linings.

Reshuffles normally prompt laments about housing’s revolving door and a scramble to find out who the new minister is.

But if the signs were not already clear about where the new government’s priorities will lie, McVey as housing minister puts them out there under floodlights.

In her two spells at the DWP, she did at least oversee the u-turn on withdrawing housing benefit from 18-21 year olds.

However, she needs little introduction as the chief apologist and cheerleader for the bedroom tax, universal credit, personal independence payment and all the other welfare ‘reforms’ that social tenants have suffered since 2010.

Three housing associations who commissioned a report from a respected academic that concluded that savings from the bedroom tax would be less than the DWP claimed were attacked for being biased.

And it turned out that social landlords, rather than the government, were to blame for the impact on tenants because they had not done enough to knock down the walls of three-bed houses to turn them into one- and two-bed flats.

Last year, as secretary of state, she was rebuked by the National Audit Office for ‘incorrect’ statements about universal credit and forced to apologise in parliament for ‘mistakenly’ claiming that it supported a faster roll-out.

Two months ago, during her brief run for the Tory leadership, her ‘blue collar conservative’ platform included a call for part of the housing benefit budget to be diverted into a new help to buy programme.

And yet this is the housing minister now in charge of the response to Grenfell, the cladding scandal, the leasehold scandal and all other issues that rely on trust and building relationships,

It will now fall to her to deliver on the ‘new deal for social housing’ promised in last year’s green paper and due to be laid out in detail in a white paper in September (a timetable that seems likely to slip).

The green paper rightly identified a need to empower residents, tackle stigma and celebrate thriving communities and seemed part of a sea change in the government’s attitude to social housing and tenants that included significant policy u-turns.

But it also ignored the government’s own role in creating that stigma and glossed over the consistent message from resident roadshows about the damage caused by the welfare ‘reform’ that she championed.

The sea change looks like it has already gone into reverse.


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