Priorities after the reshuffle

The dust has settled on the reshuffle with yet another new housing minister but more significant developments elsewhere.

The replacement of Esther McVey with Chris Pincher, the 10th housing minister to take their turn since 2010, need only detain us long enough to note the reward reaped by the former for resigning in principle from a proper Cabinet job over Brexit and the fact that the latter has lost the ‘attending Cabinet’ status that previously went with being a minister of state.

As Pete Apps noted on Thursday, the resignation of Sajid Javid is much bigger news because it dials down faint hopes that housing will gain in the Budget and Spending Review.

There was no direct evidence that this would actually happen but as a former housing secretary Javid is at least aware of the issues that need to be addressed. Rishi Sunak, the former Treasury chief secretary who steps into his shoes, is an unknown quantity.

More clues can perhaps be gleaned from the appointment of Jack Airey as Boris Johnson’s special advisor on housing and planning. As a former head of housing at Policy Exchange, we can probably expect more on the ‘building beautiful’ agenda and more support for the argument that housing problems all come back to planning.

And, at least in the short term, the most significant appointment in the reshuffle is the re-appointment of Robert Jenrick as housing secretary.

Because of Brexit and the election, he has still only faced one session of parliamentary questions from MPs but if his priorities were not clear enough already he tweeted about them repeatedly at the end of last week:

That sparked a flood of responses, with leaseholders from Skyline Central in Manchester quickest off the mark to set him straight.

It was left to the doomed Esther McVey to reply none too convincingly to a Westminster Hall debate on cladding last week, while campaigners say that Jenrick has ignored them.

However, those four priorities and the way he phrased them still provide some interesting indications of the way he thinks about his job.

The reference to ‘helping people more on to the ladder’ suggests yet more wheezes that will help some to buy while continuing to pump up prices for everyone else. Stamp duty cuts here we come?

‘Building safer, greener, beautiful homes’ lumps together three different issues while ignoring the safety of existing buildings and avoiding specific commitments on the environmental and design standards of new ones.

‘Working to end rough sleeping’ repeats the manifesto commitment to do so by the end of this parliament but says nothing about how it will be achieved.

‘Delivering our mission to level-up’ is this government’s version of ‘a country that works for everyone’ but again offers few clues about how.

A first council tax revaluation since 1991, ending the absurd situation where people in Worksop pay more than those in Westminster, would be a good start to that mission. Reports over the weekend suggest it has already been ruled out.

So here are a few brief suggestions from me about what his real priorities should be:

  • Fix the cladding crisis

For all the government promises and announcements, things are still getting worse for leaseholders trapped in unsaleable flats as mortgage lenders start to refuse loans on medium- as well as high-rise buildings.

Jenrick has so far turned down pleas to extend the remediation fund to materials other than ACM and dropped hints of a loan scheme for others affected. This is not remotely enough.

  • End abuse of leasehold

This is a curious omission from the list given that the Conservative manifesto promised to end the sale of new leasehold houses and reduce ground rents to a peppercorn.

Perhaps this is because, as above, the promises do nothing for existing leaseholders.

  • Deliver a new deal for social housing

It’s 18 months since a different housing secretary set out ‘our desire to rebalance the relationship between residents and landlords, to tackle stigma and ensure social housing can be both a safety net and a springboard to home ownership’ in the social housing green paper.

When the white paper is finally published, will Robert Jenrick follow through on all of James Brokenshire’s fine words – or just the last bit?

  • Boost security for private renters

Ending Section 21 is a manifesto commitment so Jenrick had the chance to signal that his priorities are not just about home ownership – but did not take it. An ominous sign?

  • Encourage sustainable growth in home ownership

The housing secretary’s most eye-catching policy, First Homes, contains the germ of a good idea in that it preserves the discount in perpetuity for each new buyer.

However, the details very much remain to be seen and as currently formulated the scheme looks set to squeeze out up to 80 per cent of the affordable homes currently delivered via Section 106.

  • Build more homes for social rent

Figures last week showed that social rent has accounted for just 4 per cent of homes delivered through the Shared Ownership and Affordable Homes Programme since 2016.

Theresa May seemed to understand the important of building homes at genuinely affordable rents – not least to delivering on that promise to end rough sleeping – but does Boris Johnson see beyond trains and bridges and Robert Jenrick beyond the housing ladder?

  • Take a lead on the decarbonisation of housing

With all eyes on the UK ahead of COP26, this would be a good way to show the government’s commitment to tackling climate change.

Figures buried in the Conservative manifesto suggest that it will soon be announcing a Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund and Homes Upgrade Grants for the private sector. Starting the process in the North would be a good way to start levelling up. Taking advantage of Brexit by cutting VAT on repair and maintenance would kickstart the whole process.

  • Ensure housing benefit covers the cost of rents

OK, this is the responsibility of work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey but it is a crucial issue for Jenrick too. The gap between rents and housing benefit creates homelessness and all those promises on rough sleeping and homelessness prevention will not be met unless it is closed.

Those are just a few of the issues that should be at the top of Robert Jenrick’s agenda. In the longer term, he should also be tackling the growth of short-term letting, finding housing solutions to the retail crisis and developing a strategy for housing for older people.

Sadly his stated priorities suggest that he has eyes only for the short term.


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