New name, new ministers, new start?

Originally posted on my blog for Inside Housing on January 23.

It’s got a new name and new ministers but how much has really changed at the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government?

Yesterday’s MCHLG questions marked the first time that Sajid Javid and his new team have faced MPs since the reshuffle earlier this month.

Judging from the secretary of state’s first few responses, the answer seemed to be not much.

His exchanges with his Labour shadow John Healey over the painfully slow progress on replacing unsafe tower block cladding have already been widely reported.

On the latest figures, 312 buildings have been tested and 299 have been failed but cladding has been taken down and replaced on just three.

‘How has it come to this?’ asked Healey. ‘Seven months on from Grenfell, only one in four families who are Grenfell survivors has a new permanent home. The Government still cannot confirm how many other tower blocks across the country are unsafe. Ministers still refuse to help to fund essential fire safety work when they know that blocks are dangerous.’

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Lessons from the collapse of Carillion

Originally posted on my blog for Inside Housing on January 16.

On the face of it, housing seems set to escape relatively unscathed from the crisis at Carillion but there are still some important lessons to be learned.

The construction and outsourcing firm that sounds more like a heavy metal band went into liquidation on Monday leaving £1.5 billion owed to the banks, 19,000 workers facing an uncertain future and a £600 million hole in its pension fund.

That’s before we get to the egg on the faces of ministers who continued to award it lucrative contracts despite clear warning signs about its future, the controversy about executive pay and dividends and the awful knock-on effects on smaller companies and workers in the supply chain owed money that may not get paid at all.

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Return of the housing ministry

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

What’s in a name? Only time will tell how important the change of departmental moniker will be but it was surely the minimum that Theresa May needed to do to show that housing now ranks as a top priority for her government.

The man in charge may still be the same (Sajid Javid) but both the creation of the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) and the order of the words in the title are significant.

By my reckoning this is the first time since 1970 that the word ‘housing’ has appeared in the title of the organisation and the secretary of state responsible for it.

In the 38 years since the Ministry of Housing and Local Government was abolished to create the Department of the Environment the name has been changed again and again to reflect different briefs and priorities.

Between Peter Walker back in 1970 and Sajid Javid in 2018 we’ve had 28 different housing ministers of middle and junior rank, a handful of them with the right to attend Cabinet but not vote in it.

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Five wishes for 2018

It’s the time of year again. The time for New Year’s Resolutions that last only a little longer than the next day’s hangover and the time to hope that maybe things will get better once the clock strikes midnight.

So here are five things that bugged me in 2017 that I hope are about to change over the next 12 months.

1) That it will be 2018 not 1958

This seems a vain hope given a prevailing political climate that is blowing us back to the glory days of ‘iconic blue passports’. The Home Office is even making an early bid to take us back to the land of warm beer and black and white telly.

Maybe Britain will wake up in 2018. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll learn the lessons that were sinking in back in 1958 and realise that the Empire has gone and we need to look closer to home. Read the rest of this entry »

10 things about 2017: part two

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on December 27.

This second part of my look back at the year in housing starts with the return of the S word and asks how much has really changed. Part one is here.

6) The year of social housing?

The Grenfell fire intensified a debate about the future of social housing that was already underway.

Under David Cameron and George Osborne, the government had relentlessly boosted the right to buy and pursue ‘affordable’ rather than the social housing they saw as a breeding ground for Labour voters.

The year began with an announcement of first wave of part of their legacy, the starter homes that critics warned would displace other affordable homes.

However, the tide was turning against that type of politics. Away from Westminster, protests about estate regeneration (and loss of social housing) had spawned Dispossession, a documentary shown in cinemas across the country.

But the impact was evident inside the village too. When Theresa May called a snap election her manifesto featured plans for ‘a new generation of social housing’. The reality has never quite matched the rhetoric but to hear a Conservative prime minister mention the S word was a change in itself.

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10 things about 2017: part one

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on December 22.

As in 2016, it seemed like nothing would ever be the same again after a momentous event halfway through the year.

The horrific Grenfell Tower fire on June 14 means that the headline on this column should really have read ‘nine other things about 2017’. Just as the Brexit voted has changed everything in politics, so it is almost impossible to see anything in housing except through the prism of that awful night.

That said, 2017 was another year of momentous change for housing, one that brought a few signs of hope too. Here’s the first of my two-part review of what I was writing about.

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A damning verdict on the building regulations and fire safety

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on December 18.

Six months on from the disaster that changed everything it sometimes feels like not much has changed.

Despite the promises made in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell fire, progress has been painfully slow on rehousing families from the tower and surrounding block.

The police will not complete a full forensic assessment and reconstruction of how the fire spread before autumn 2018 and potential suspects in the criminal investigation will not be interviewed until after that.

Interim findings from the public inquiry were originally due by Easter 2018 but the judge leading it says the scale of the work that is required means that will not now be possible. No date has been set for the final report.

With up to 2,400 witnesses to be interviewed, 31 million documents to be examined and 383 companies identified as having played some role in the refurbishment of the tower, it’s not hard to find good reasons why things are taking so long.

Establishing the causes of the fire to stop the same thing happening again will be complicated enough but that is just part of getting justice for the victims and survivors.

Finding who was to blame will take time and all the while questions will remain about building safety elsewhere.

Tangible progress towards finding some of the answers comes with today’s publication of the interim findings of the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety chaired by Dame Judith Hackitt.

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