Housing waits on a new minister – and the deal with the DUP

Below is my piece for the Guardian Housing Network yesterday. A new Housing Minister is yet to be appointed and we have to wait and see if the negotiations between the Tories and the DUP have any implications for housing and social security. Whatever the outcome of the deal, the DUP will have influence over what happens in future. So how might it all pan out?

I’ve always believed that one day housing would be a decisive factor in a UK general election. On 8 June 2017, however, once again, this issue was the dog that didn’t bark.

The Tories had nothing in their manifesto to suggest they are brimming with new ideas in housing. They put all their policy eggs in the housebuilding basket, with one exception – a commitment to halve rough sleeping and to “combat homelessness”. This is a worthy aspiration but there is very little actual policy to make it happen, and their track record to date has been awful.

The defeat of Gavin Barwell, former minister for housing and planning, as well as being London minister, is significant. In terms of housing policy, Barwell was a moderate relative to his predecessors. Some are hoping his re-emergence as Theresa May’s chief of staff will help housing, but his priorities in that job will be Brexit and her political survival.

With Barwell no longer an MP, the sixth housing minister since 2010, when appointed, will have to pick up the baton. There is little reason to suppose they will be any more effective – or long-lasting – than their predecessors. If the Tories are ever to appeal to younger people, the new minister will have to revisit the existing hands-off approach to private renting, make a reality of the promise to halve rough sleeping, and make the case to restore housing benefit for 18-21 year olds.

The future for housing depends on how long this parliament and this prime minister last. Some of us can remember the last time there were two elections in one year. Rather like May and Brexit, in 1974 Edward Heath called a single question election on who runs the country. The firm answer was “not you mate”. The short-lived February 1974 minority Labour government was surprisingly radical on housing. Sadly, May’s stopgap government won’t be.

Increased uncertainty has already hit confidence in the markets, with housebuilders affected more than anyone. If a hard landing out of the EU hits housebuilding and construction, the commitment to increase building to 250,000 a year by 2022 will be toast. Under scrutiny during the election campaign their promised relaunch of council housing turned out to be homes at unaffordable “affordable rents” rather than social rents.

Despite austerity, the Conservatives’ real policy under David Cameron and George Osborne was to pump vast amounts of money into shoring up the housing market – enough to fund Labour’s entire programme many times over – while neglecting the interests of renters and marching on relentlessly with devastating welfare cuts and freezes.

Most commentators have focused on the fact that the Tories’ new partners, the DUP, are socially very illiberal. Indeed, they are. Yet they are economically more progressive than the Tories, reflecting the interests of their Protestant working class base. Although the DUP’s 2017 Westminster manifesto has almost nothing to say on housing, it promises to resist changes to universal benefits and supports the triple lock on pensions. In the past the DUP’s approach to welfare has been far less punitive than the Westminster government. It has, for example, sought to mitigate the bedroom tax and has opposed the government’s funding cuts to supported housing. The party’s policy document says the case for investment in social housing is ”unarguable” and the DUP is committed to building 8,000 social and affordable homes by 2020.

So although the DUP focus will be on Northern Ireland rather than the rest of the UK, any influence the party has in housing might, contrary to expectations, be positive.

Meanwhile, a reinvigorated opposition will be able to build and work from a coherent housing plan (pdf). Perhaps next time we will finally be able to “release the hounds”.

 

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