Political chaos leaves big housing questions

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

So it’s back to the future and all change at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) as the dust begins to settle from the political chaos of the last two weeks.

It was a scandal involving one ex-housing minister (Chris Pincher) that triggered the revolt against Boris Johnson. Many Tories want another (Dominic Raab) to take over as temporary prime minister. And two more (Grant Shapps and ex-housing secretary Sajid Javid) could run as candidates for the permanent job.

Over at the department that keeps changing its name, Michael Gove has been sacked as ‘a snake’ and most of the more junior ministers have resigned. Stuart Andrew set a new record for a housing minister with just 148 days in the job and no time even for an Inside Housing interview to be published.

Coming in as temporary secretary of state is the familiar figure of Greg Clark, who according to some reports this morning has told civil servants that Gove will be back soon.

Confused? Significant new policy announcements are by convention ruled out until there is a new permanent leader and cabinet – but this did not stop Theresa May enshrining the net zero by 2050 commitment in law before she left office and Boris Johnson is not noted for following convention.  

Meanwhile the political chaos leaves many existing policies up in the air. One of the most contentious will be completely familiar to Greg Clark. As in 2015, he arrives in the job with Downing Street hell-bent on extending the Right to Buy to housing association tenants.

Back then he negotiated a voluntary deal with the National Housing Federation that would see the government fund the discounts.

The issue disappeared into the long grass and a regional pilot after the proposed levy on the forced sales of higher-value council houses collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions.

Revived by Boris Johnson, the idea is now back at a national level but the problem of how to fund the discounts remains.

Michael Gove gave a personal commitment that the money would come from across government and not come from existing DLUHC budget such as the Affordable Homes Programme. However, it remains to be seen what that pledge is worth now that he has gone and whether he really had an agreement with the Treasury (naturally enough, the chancellor has changed as well).

The same uncertainties will also surround other policy areas where progress owed much to Gove’s drive and experience in Whitehall.

On building safety, End Our Cladding Scandal has expressed its thanks to Gove and his officials but also its concern about progress in turning developer remediation pledges into contracts and finalising secondary legislation due on July 20.

Clark proved to be an able and pragmatic secretary of state the first time around but progress may still require him to get rapidly up to speed on the issues in what is a temporary position.

And, if it’s not Gove, will a new housing secretary after the leadership election really be as determined to stand up to interest groups such as housebuilders, property companies and landlords that have traditionally supported and funded the Conservatives?

Will he or she be as challenging as Gove was to ‘Thatcher-worshipping Tories’ on the need for more social housing?

The DLUHC has two bills currently going through parliament but it will fall to two new ministers of state appointed late on Thursday to pilot them through the Commons at a time when the political turmoil throws the Queen’s Speech timetable into doubt.

Former small business minister Paul Scully and former assistant whip Marcus Jones, who was junior local government minister in the department between 2015 and 2018, will make life less lonely for surviving junior minister Eddie Hughes. It remains unclear which of them will become the 12th housing minister since 2010.

That is just as well because the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill is at the committee stage in the Commons and the committee had to be cancelled on Thursday because no minister was available.

Though the government retreated from planning reform, crucial details on policies such as the Infrastructure Levy and its impact on funding for affordable homes remain to be settled.

The Social Housing Regulation Bill is at the committee stage in the Lords and is yet to appear in the Commons but it will still need a minister to deliver on the promises made to tenants in the wake of Grenfell.

In the wider political context, the Conservatives leadership contest has already begun and the signs are that the candidates will have to voice traditional Tory tropes to win. A politics dominated by tax cuts will be much more challenging for housing.

This week’s political turmoil came less than a month after publication of the fairer renting white paper. The road to legislation on issues like ending Section 21 will have to be marked by a series of delicate balances between landlords and tenants and it remains to be seen if the new regime in Downing Street will be as committed to fundamental reform that reverses years of Tory orthodoxy.

Leasehold reform got left behind in the Queen’s Speech, as it has under so many previous governments, and the current political paralysis does not look like the best environment in which to revive it.

The big issue of what to do about social rents next year is coming ever closer while the huge issue of net zero looms over the future with few signs that there is any strategy to decarbonise housing.

So there is lots at stake, and much that can’t simply wait for the Conservative Party to sort itself out.

The one consolation for housing is that it should at least put an end to the stream of wizard wheezes coming out of Downing Street (though don’t count on that entirely).

After the Right to Buy and converting housing benefit into a mortgage came the notion of 50-year mortgages that buyers can pass on to their kids. This was straight out of a tradition of policies that signal aspiration and benefit a small number of people in the short term at the price of making homes more unaffordable in the long term.

The tenant living above the office can of course only hope for such long-term security. His eviction notice has already been served.  



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