You need all your fingers and toes to count the number of Ministers of Housing we have had in the last 30 years. The short term nature of occupancy of the job is one of the reasons we have had so few attempts to create an effective long term housing policy, just short-term stunts and attempted quick fixes. Under Labour, people shuffled in and out rapidly and the Tories have made an art of changing the Minister pretty much every year.
Now its Gavin Barwell, MP for Croydon Central, one of Theresa May’s last appointments on Sunday. Are there any grounds for optimism apart from noting he’s not Brandon Lewis or Kris Hopkins or Grant Shapps? Turning to trusty old Wikipaedia, he has at least a little bit of a track record in his new subject, but, worryingly, largely at Conservative Party headquarters and as a Party apparatchik. He worked on housing and was special adviser to John Gummer when he was Secretary of State for the Environment before moving on to wider political duties. He was also a Croydon councillor for 12 years. A genuine achievement as an MP was his sponsorship of the private members’ Bill to outlaw some forms of discrimination against people with a history of mental health problems, which became law in 2013.
Mostly a loyalist, Barwell has gone along with the policies of his predecessors. Some people have seen some hope of a slight change in direction in Theresa May’s speech outside Number 10, where she highlighted the need to unite ‘all our citizens, every one of us, whoever we are and wherever we’re from’. She promised to fight against injustice, and to promote the interests of ‘ordinary working class families’. Regrettably, her only mention of housing was the cost of paying a mortgage. And the cynics amongst us will remember Thatcher’s first words on the steps of No 10, quoting from St Francis of Assisi’s prayer: ‘Where there is discord, may we bring harmony……..’ So, Prime Ministerial first words are often the opposite of what follows.
Barwell’s first tweets raised some hope of a more cooperative and considered approach to the job: ‘Look forward to working with councils, housing associations, developers & investors to ensure we build the homes people need and deserve…’. But they all say that, don’t they?
The Government now has not a One Nation housing policy but a One Tenure housing policy
As Monimbo has showed clearly on Red Brick recently, (here and here), the Government now has not a One Nation housing policy but a One Tenure housing policy, committing vast sums to try to reverse the downward decline in home ownership, largely by boosting subsidies to demand rather than supply.
This short-term, expensive and economically illiterate approach is throwing away the opportunities that exist to use the resources and powers available to create a balanced housing policy which looks to achieve a much faster rate of housebuilding across the board – market homes, intermediate homes including shared ownership, and social rent.
Thinking along those lines is the only way that Theresa May and Gavin Barwell have a hope of tackling the increasingly intense housing injustices that disfigure our country.
Will they rise to the challenge or will it be more of the same? My money, sadly, is on the latter.