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Housing Minister Says Housing Is "Never Really The Problem"

Lee Rowley was appointed as housing minister in November (Baldo Sciacca)

9 min read

Housing Minister Lee Rowley has said that housing itself is "never really actually the problem,” a few months after taking on the job of leading the UK government’s strategy on housing, planning and building safety.

“The thing I’ve learned is housing is never really actually the problem,” Rowley told The House.

“It's the manifestation of where people have concerns where the challenges are visible, actually it’s a manifestation of other things.”  

Infrastructure, the quality of living conditions, and the ever-contentious issue of migration and the UK’s growing population – these are just some of the “actual” problems which Rowley said were troubling the nation.  

“Housing is super interesting because it brings all of those together, but actually, if you want to make further progress in housing, you've got to make sure you link it to all of these different things and take everything along in the right direction.” 

The consensus among many campaign groups is that when it comes to housing and the issues connected with it, the UK has been going in the wrong direction for some time. Private rents are increasing at the fastest rate since records began, mortgage rates are soaring, the number of evictions have escalated, and by 2030, an extra 1.7m households will be living in unaffordable homes, an increase of more than a third compared to most recent official figures from 2020/21, according to a report in September by Pragmatix Advisory on behalf of the National Housing Federation (NHF).

In November, Rowley became the sixteenth housing minister since the Conservatives took power in 2010, having also been the thirteenth minister when he briefly held the role in 2022. Organisations such as the Institute for Government have criticised this ministerial ‘churn’ and raised concerns that the housing sector has lacked long-term government strategy and stability as a result.

“The question isn't necessarily ‘who does it?’,” Rowley said. “The question is what you are doing. Is it perfect? No, of course it isn't. Is there more to do? Absolutely. Do we need to do reform, as we always do? Have there been elements of this process which have gotten too bureaucratic? Definitely. And we need to try and address those. 

“But if you stood back and said ‘has there been progress made on housing in the last 14 years?’, the answer would be yes.” 

Rowley said that while he does not know what the current government’s legacy on housing will be – “that will be a function of when we finish government and what the circumstances are at the time” – he hoped they can carry out a “significant amount of reform”, build a “significant amount of new houses”, and sharpen national recognition of the importance of “building in the right place”. 

Housing minister
Lee Rowley said housing targets were not a "useful" way to frame the conversation (Baldo Sciacca)

Time for the million dollar question: How many new houses? In its 2019 manifesto, the Conservative Party pledged to build 300,000 new houses each year by the mid-2020s if it got into power. But the figure has never been achieved. 

In 2022, Housing Secretary Michael Gove confirmed the target had been watered down and last year, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak defended the scrapping of the target by arguing that Tory members, activists and councillors expressed "no support" for "nationally imposed, top-down set of targets". 

Rowley, however, told Sky News in February that “we've got to have targets” and the Department for Levelling Up has now confirmed that ministers still plan to meet the ambition to deliver 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s. 

“I [don’t] want to remove a target because I think it's important that we have aspirations and a long term objective to reach, but equally, we shouldn't hang the entire conversation on it,” Rowley told The House.

“We've made good progress towards it but we haven't got there yet, just like every other single government probably since the 1960s hasn’t got to this 300,000 target. 

“It's just not a very useful way of having the discussion about housing… there's always going to be changed economic circumstances which means that the housing numbers are going to be fluctuating over a period of years.” 

The housing minister said that while much of the national conversation centres around those at the top and bottom income brackets, the government particularly wants to support the “whole heaps of people in the middle” who want to own their own homes but are unable to in the current economy. 

“There are new products being brought forward to support people to get on the housing ladder,” he said. 

One of the recent proposals announced by the government has been to force councils in England to prioritise developments on brownfield sites, telling local authorities to be "less bureaucratic and more flexible" on planning policies in these areas. These sites will primarily be in urban areas such as London in order to “protect” the countryside and the green belt from development. 

However, according to London Councils, these proposals might do little to solve the capital’s ongoing housing crisis, as many projects already being built on brownfield sites are being held back for other reasons such as a lack of capital funding, a lack of infrastructure investment, and a shortage of skilled construction workers. 

“It's not the job of government to do everything, it's not my philosophy,” Rowley said when asked whether the government will do more to address these other issues. “If any individual is waiting out there for government to do everything, they're going to be waiting a long time.” 

The government wants to see “relative, reasonable densification” in cities like London, he added. “It's ultimately for local authorities to make a decision about things from location to the extent of high rise buildings, but you would expect logically and philosophically that in areas where there is significant amount of infrastructure, that we would try and ensure that the most amount of properties that if reasonable to go there goes there.  

“So it has to be the case that in London you need to use all the sites that you have available… and if people are putting barriers in the way like the Mayor of London is, we have to try and sweep some of those barriers away.” 

Lee Rowley
Lee Rowley previously rejected claims the government has not built enough social housing (Baldo Sciacca)

Housing campaigners are also urging the government to increase the provision of social housing. There were 1.29 million households on local authority waiting lists in 2023, an increase of 6 per cent compared to the year before and the highest number on the waiting list since 2014. 

In January, Rowley rejected claims the Tories had not built enough social housing since 2010, telling Radio 4 the government had built “nearly 700,000 social homes, including 170,000 for social rent” over that period. However, the government’s own Regulator of Social Housing has shown there has been a decrease of 225,102 ‘genuine’ social rented homes since 2012, though this is offset by the addition of 361,560 so-called ‘affordable’ rent homes. 

“We can have a big debate about what the broad definition of social housing is… the reality is, the government has built a significant number of properties which are not sold at market rate, all of which are trying to support people who can't immediately get on the housing ladder to be able to have a roof over their heads,” Rowley said. 

“We obviously want people to get roofs over their heads, we obviously want to support the most vulnerable in our society. So the best way that government can do that is by building more social housing.” 

And what can the government do for the one in four private renters who currently live in fuel poverty and the 55 per cent of private rented homes who have an energy efficiency rating of band D or below? 

Rowley said the quality of the UK’s housing stock from an energy efficiency perspective is “absolutely” better than it was before the Conservatives came into government. “Is there more to be done? Yes. But that's going to take time. The energy shock which we've all just gone through has highlighted and brought in sharp relief some of the challenges around energy costs.”

He added that tackling energy efficiency in homes would take long-term thinking that “democracy sometimes can struggle with”.

“Parties change, and people don't think in 25/30 year processes,” he said. “But there is a recognition that something needs to be done, this government set out its objective in 2019 and we're working through that and every year it gets better. Every year, efficiency of the stock is improving, therefore people’s bills are in aggregate coming down.” 

Recent Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit analysis has shown that an average annual energy bill could be reduced by £279 a year by changing a home’s rating from Band D to Band C. 

Another area which the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities hopes to reform is the leasehold system, criticised by Gove as a “feudal” system which should be eventually abolished. 

The Leasehold and Freehold Bill was introduced in the King’s Speech in November, including measures to make it easier and cheaper for existing leaseholders in houses and flats to either buy their freehold or extend their lease. The bill also plans to increase the standard term of a lease from 90 years to 990 years and ban the creation of new leasehold houses in favour of freehold properties. 

“It's clear that leasehold has a significant number of problems with it,” Rowley said. “There are elements of leasehold where there isn't sufficient redress, where there isn't sufficient transparency, and where people are effectively paying money for nothing.

“There will always be a requirement for a system whereby certain parts of properties can be managed in a particular way for the benefit of the resident or the operators or the owners. But is that what we have at the moment? No. And that's why we try to reform it.”

Leasehold campaigners are concerned the bill will not cap ground rents to peppercorn rates, a measure that would significantly ease the financial burden on leaseholders.  

The minister confirmed that consultations on this issue closed earlier this year and that the government is going through the “significant” number of responses to it: “We have to work through that in an appropriate way. This is an important but also a contested area.” 

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