The big questions facing Simon Clarke

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

Simon Clarke has yet to reveal much of his thinking on the key issues facing his new department but the early signals coming from the new government mean it’s already clear that tough choices lie ahead.

As chief secretary to the Treasury since September 2021 he was responsible for scrutinising and departmental requests for more public spending. Now he replaces Greg Clark at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), where he briefly served as a minister for regional growth and local government in 2020.

As a prominent supporter of Liz Truss, Clarke will have some influence with the prime minister and could be heard acting as her spokesman on energy costs on the Today programme on Thursday.

Like any secretary of state he will fight for the departmental interest and but it seems doubtful whether he will have as much heft in Whitehall as his predecessor but one Michael Gove.

Indeed there are already some straws in the wind. Consider a story leaked to the Telegraph over the weekend about a £1.5bn underspend at the DLUHC.

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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.  

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Mind the gaps on building safety

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

Who is guilty, who is innocent and who is merely collateral damage? The answers, when it comes to building safety, are not as simple as it first seems.

Guilt in a legal sense remains to be seen but just about everyone involved in the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower seems to bear some responsibility, starting with the governments that set the building regulations and reaching down via organisations involved in product testing and certification and building control to the companies that supplied the cladding and insulation, the contractor, designers, subcontractors and client. 

All of the above plus developers are seen as ‘guilty’ when it comes to the wider building safety crisis while leaseholders are the innocent parties that the government has finally accepted should be protected from the costs.

And yet scratch a little deeper in the debates over the Building Safety Bill and the new approach initiated by Michael Gove and the dividing line between innocent and guilty is not remotely as clear cut as that.

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The tide turns on deregulation and the private sector

The package of building safety changes announced this week by Michael Gove represents an extraordinary shift on any number of different levels.

Whether it’s effectively banning developers from building anything if they fail to cooperate or rewriting the terms of tens of thousands of leasehold contracts, the amendments to the Building Safety Bill will fundamentally change the way that flats (at least those over 11m) are maintained and managed.

The package inevitably raises a whole series of questions that I’ll return to in a future column but for now I want to concentrate on what it says about the extent of the change in the government’s attitude towards the private sector in housing.

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Gove’s grand plan leaves gaps to fill

As one MP put it, we welcome the steps forward in ministerial statements on building safety only to find problems in the steps backward that follow.

Michael Gove’s plans to ‘make developers pay’ represent the most positive steps seen so far but there are still major concerns over what comes next.

For starters, how exactly will he ‘make’ them? The initial plan in talks before Easter seems to be persuasion but the levelling up secretary has limited levers that he can pull and why would companies that have previously resisted calls to ‘do the right thing’ change their minds now?

He cited the way that Rydon Homes, sister company of the main contractor in the Grenfell refurbishment, was barred from Help to Buy but the scheme ends in 2023 and most of the £29 billion in equity loans has already been committed.

This highlights yet again a major flaw in the government’s support for housebuilders that I highlighted even before the creation of Help to Buy: its failure to get a quid pro quo for all that help for profits, bonuses and dividends.

Short of another support scheme, which may ironically be needed if supply plummets, that leaves blacklisting from Homes England programmes and naming and shaming as his principal weapons. Neither is a negligible threat but will they be enough?

That leaves coercion, legal action or the ‘high-level threat’ of a new tax that Gove is authorised to make in the letter leaked to Newsnight from chief secretary to the Treasury Simon Clarke.

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How sorry is ‘deeply sorry’?

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

Where does the buck stop? It’s the question that has hung over much of the Grenfell Tower inquiry ever since phase two opened with what lead counsel Richard Millett called a ‘merry-go-round of buck passing’ between the organisations and companies involved.

The opening statements in the latest part of module 6 this week  take us at last to where, how and why decisions were made within government. 

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) admits in its opening statement that it ‘presided over an overarching building safety system that has been shown to be unfit for purpose with catastrophic consequences’.

It acknowledges a series of failures in its oversight of the regulatory system, internal governance, and the nature of its responses  to the recommendations of the Lakanal House coroner and issues raised by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on fire safety.

And it says that: ‘Cumulatively these failings helped to create an environment in which non-compliance was widespread and such a tragedy was possible. For that it is deeply sorry.’

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Parallel scandals

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

The building safety and leasehold scandals have run in tandem for some time but the parallels really hit home in parliament this week.

The parallels between the two issues go well beyond the fact that both concern leaseholders and the power imbalance between them and freeholders.

While the government is acting to change things for the future, progress on protecting existing leaseholders and residents of buildings with safety issues has been slow. Ministers have repeatedly promised action only to lament the complexities of the issues involved.

Building safety dominated the initial exchanges in Commons questions on Monday as MP after MP asked Michael Gove about the plight of leaseholders in their constituencies.

The levelling up secretary dropped yet more hints of a series of new measures to tackle the ‘invidious vice’ in which leaseholders are caught that will be announced ‘shortly’, ‘in due course’ and eventually ‘before Christmas’.

Adopting the more aggressive tone towards developers and the construction industry that has marked his approach to the issue since the reshuffle, he said that ‘my Department are looking at every available means to ensure that the burden is lifted from leaseholders’ shoulders and placed where it truly belongs’.

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Cutting the Goveian knot

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

In a two-hour appearance before MPs, Michael Gove made most of the right noises but can he really come up with meaningful solutions to the intractable problems that come with his new job?

The man in charge of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) was facing questions from what is still called the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee. You can watch it back here.

The reorganisation of his department added responsibilities for levelling up and preserving the union to the tangled threads of building safety, planning, home ownership and homelessness that were already crowding his in-tray. You might almost call it a Goveian Knot.

What was striking was not just Mr Gove’s willingness to engage with committee members but also his multiple hints of bolder answers on the way.

The levelling up secretary signalled pauses and rethinks and resets on several of the most contentious issues he faces. This is reflected in this morning’s press coverage of his hints that housebuilding targets will be scrapped, his pledge that controversial fire safety advice will be withdrawn soon and his criticism of ‘overcautious’ lending by banks to first-time buyers.  

It also became clear that he sees a direct link between levelling up and the H side of his brief.

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How DLUHC and DWP mark their homework

With a new secretary of state, a new department and a new name, what are the government’s real priorities when it comes to housing?

Some big clues dropped in an intriguing supplementary document published alongside the Budget and Spending Review this week.

Spending Review 2021 – Policy outcomes and metrics is meant to tie spending and performance together. Each department has an Outcome Delivery Plan that sets out their priority outcomes and the metrics they will use to measure their performance against them. Effectively, this is their homework how they want it to be marked and the measures used are highly revealing.

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Behind the Spending Review’s smoke and mirrors

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

This was a spending review that didn’t really feel like a spending review as far as housing is concerned.

It’s the first multi-year review since 2015 but compare it to the austerity seen then and in 2010, the cuts of 1998 and even the relative largesse of 2007 and it seems to contain little that is really new.

Aside from what is claimed to be an additional £1.8 billion for brownfield land, almost everything in it has already been announced, in some cases several times.

The 2021 spending review (SR21) ‘confirms’ £5 billion for cladding removal and ‘reconfirms’ £11.5 billion for the Affordable Homes Programme alongside an existing £10 billion for housing supply but the numbers in it play fast and loose with the difference between the five years of this parliament and the three covered by the review (2022/23 to 2024/25).

A classic example is the claim in the Red Book  that: ‘SR21 demonstrates the government’s commitment to investing in safe and affordable housing by confirming a settlement of nearly £24 billion for housing, up to 2025-26.’ Rishi Sunak also used this impressively large number in his Budget speech.

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