Smoke, mirrors and broken promises

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

This is definitely not the first government to hype up its policies, break its promises and sneak out inconvenient announcements as quietly as possible but it is one that has taken its game to a new level.

Anyone in housing has become wearily familiar with the semantics of ‘affordable’ housing and the ‘spare room subsidy’ but the trend is now evident across government.

The thought was prompted by watching Boris Johnson bluster his way through a TV interview in which he denied he was breaking his repeated pledge to build Northern Powerhouse Rail between Liverpool and Leeds.

That scheme, plus the eastern leg of HS2, have indeed been scrapped in the Integrated Rail Plan but the prime minister’s dodgy claim was based on small sections of them going ahead.

Boris Johnson pulled a similar trick with his promise to build ’40 new hospitals’. Most of them are merely new buildings at existing hospitals – and the infrastructure watchdog now says most are ‘unachievable’ in any case -but that has not stopped the hype.

Aside from the transport issues, the importance of (take your pick) ‘the biggest ever public investment in Britain’s rail network’ or the ‘Great Train Robbery’ is of course the link with levelling up.

That policy is due to be fleshed out in a white paper before Christmas but its success as a slogan is based on the implication that everyone can be a winner without anyone losing out.

That was also the claim implicit in the policy on social care that Boris Johnson (him again) promised would mean that nobody will have to sell their home.

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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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An empty vision from the Conservatives

So now we know. The way to tackle the affordability crisis is to pretend that it does not exist.

There is no official confirmation yet but the clear message from the Conservative Party conference is that radical planning reform and the attempt to force through new housebuilding in the least affordable parts of the country are both dead.

In their place are vague assurances that building more homes in the North will help both to level up the country and take the pressure off the South East. 

It was there front and centre in Boris Johnson’s invitation in his conference speech  to: 

‘Look at this country from the air. Go on google maps, you can also see how much room there is to build the homes that young families need in this country, not on green fields, not just jammed in the South East, but beautiful homes on brownfield sites in places where homes make sense.’

The prime minister still talked about ‘fixing the broken housing market’ but that is no longer a goal to be achieved by building more homes in expensive areas but a means to a different end:

‘Housing in the right place at an affordable price will add massively not just to your general joie de vivre but to your productivity. And that is how we solve the national productivity puzzle by fixing the broken housing market by plugging in the gigabit, by putting in decent safe bus routes and all other transport infrastructure and by investing in skills, skills, skills and that by the way is how we help to cut the cost of living for everyone because housing, energy, transport are now huge parts of our monthly bills.’

There was more in the same vein and some guff about ‘the dream of home ownership’ but you get the picture. Needless to say he had nothing to say about fixing parts of the market that are most broken for tens of thousands of leaseholders stuck in dangerous and defective flats. 

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The levelling up of MHCLG

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on September 23.

So it’s farewell to the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government and hello to the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. 

As rumoured last week, we have new brass plates and stationery to go with new secretary of state Michael Gove at Marsham Street and its new office in Wolverhampton. 

So what’s the difference between MHCLG and DLUHC? First, and most obvious, is that top billing for levelling up, as DLUHC becomes the unpronounceable in pursuit of the undefinable.

Second, it’s worth remembering why the rebranding to MHCLG seemed so significant when it happened three and a half years and three secretaries of state ago. 

It was not just the H in the title, it was the way it was a deliberate echo of the 1950s and 1960s, when the two main parties competed with each other to build more council houses, and Macmillan rather than Thatcher seemed the reference point for the Tories on housing.  

Third, an important caveat to that: although relegated to second billing, housing is still there in the name, which is more than can be said for its predecessors since the 1970s. 

Within a department with significant extra responsibilities (not just levelling up but preserving the union as well) housing is at least still a priority of sorts. Local government has disappeared. 

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New secretary of state, same old problems

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

So it’s farewell to Robert Jenrick and time to ‘welcome’ a new housing secretary in Michael Gove. 

The removal of Mr Jenrick is not a great surprise given a record that includes Westferry, failure to fix the building safety crisis and a flagship policy on planning reform that seems to be sinking. 

Still more so when he ranked third bottom in Conservative Home’s survey of grassroots Tories on how they see members of the Cabinet. Only Gavin Williamson (sacked) and Amanda Milling (demoted) were less popular than him. 

But he also got more money out of the Treasury for building safety than either of his two predecessors and that unpopularity may deserve more respect if it was based on nimby opposition to his planning reform agenda to deliver more homes 

The former housing secretary was an early supporter of Boris Johnson and was loyal to the point of defending government policies on the Sunday morning talk shows that were scrapped in u-turns an hour later.

But loyalty is not always what counts in politics and as if to prove the point he is replaced by Michael Gove, the man who famously stabbed Johnson in the back in the 2016 Tory leadership contest. 

The former Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is the longest-serving current cabinet minister and brings with him cross-departmental clout that will include driving forward the manifesto commitments to deliver 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s and end rough sleeping by the end of this parliament

He was the shadow housing minister before Grant Shapps so he will be familiar with the issues and the main players and he will get an early reminder today of the biggest new issue in his in-tray when leaseholders and building safety campaigners hold a rally in Westminster.

However, such an apparently known quantity still leaves plenty of questions about what his priorities will be and he retains a capacity to surprise (not least on the dance floor). 

He comes with a reputation for delivery forged in the Cabinet Office but while some of this morning’s papers see his new job as central to the government’s mission to level up, others see it as a demotion or disappointment compared to his hopes of higher office. 

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Does Levelling Up mean Softening Up

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on May 17.

‘Levelling Up’ has become one of the most resonant slogans in English politics without anyone having a clue what it means.

Two years after it became a key political message, the Johnson government has appointed Neil O’Brien, an influential backbench Conservative MP, to tell them. A white paper is said to be on the way shortly. 

The message works because it manages to convey good news for people in the north at the same time as it suggests nobody in the south will lose out. 

And after the election results on May 6 it seems that many northern voters have decided that ‘where there’s Tories, there’s brass’.

But what, if anything, does the slogan mean in housing? The regional distribution of problems of affordability and homelessness suggests that it’s London and the south that need levelling up with more affordable homes.

That may be true in aggregate even though the north-south split on affordability is not as neat as that but to see things through southern spectacles misses other issues.

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