Sajid Javid: “We’re not looking for another leader. We’ve got a great one right now.”
Sajid Javid knows that tackling Britain’s housing crisis is essential if his party is going to rebuild its support among the under-40s. The Communities Secretary tells Kevin Schofield that the Conservatives have ‘two to three years’ to deliver real change – or face the consequences at the ballot box
Sajid Javid’s aides look anxiously at their watches, making it clear that our allotted time with their boss is almost up. The Communities Secretary has been here before. Ahead of the Conservative Party conference, he gave an interview to The Observer which threw up a rather intriguing news line.
According to the paper, Javid gave a rather odd answer when asked if he believed Theresa May should lead the Tories into the next general election: “He waits several seconds, smiles, then stands and offers his hand. ‘I think we’re out of time,’ he says, leaving us to draw the obvious conclusion.”
Javid has since disputed The Observer’s version of events, and is careful not to leave any room for misinterpretation this time. “In that particular interview, we just ran out of time,” he insists. “I think Theresa May is doing an excellent job in what everyone would agree are difficult and challenging circumstances for the country.
“If she decides to run again, as she may, she will have my full support. I think she makes a great Prime Minister and an excellent leader of our party.”
To be fair, the minister has more than enough on his plate trying to boost the UK’s pitiful housebuilding rate to be spending any time worrying about the future leadership of his party. Javid freely admits that Britain is in the grip of a “housing crisis”.
He says: “Successive governments for two or three decades have not built enough homes. As a country for the last 20 years we’ve been building about 150,000 homes a year – we should have been building about 250,000.
“Like anything, when you don’t have enough supply and the demand’s still there, the price keeps going up. The affordability ratio in England – the average house price divided by average earnings – is eight times, which is the highest it’s ever been in England and also the highest of any major developed economy, so clearly that illustrates how serious the affordability issue is.
“It means either fewer people are owning their own places, the age of first time buyers is rising and their ability to buy their own property has clearly become more difficult. And more people are renting because they feel they have no choice.
“This to me is the biggest barrier to social progress in our country today, and it’s also a major economic problem. It’s a housing crisis – I’ve been very open about this – it’s a broken housing market. There are lots of things that need to be done to fix it, there’s no magic bullet.”
Javid insists there has been progress on housebuilding since the 2010 election, but “by no means enough”. He says that up to 300,000 new homes need to be built every year to address the problem, a challenge which successive governments have found impossible to achieve.
In her Conservative conference speech, Theresa May announced an extra £2bn to help fund a new generation of council homes. This was, we were told in advance, the biggest commitment to new social housing since the post-war Attlee government. But closer inspection of the fine detail revealed that the Prime Minister was only proposing an extra 25,000 by 2021, or 5,000 a year. By any reckoning, that will not make much of a dent in Javid’s target.
The minister – who stresses that more council houses have been delivered since 2010 than in the entire 13 years of Labour government which preceded it – readily admits that the government needs to set its sights much higher.
“I want to see councils deliver more,” he says. “The 5,000 is just looking at the grant itself, there are other ways we can work with councils. The final total might well be more than that. I hesitate to put a total figure on that, but we’ve asked for ambition and we are seeing ambition from councils.”
There is a political imperative to all of this as well. It is widely accepted that part of the reason why young voters flocked to Labour in June was their anger at the lack of affordable housing across the country.
Javid says he recognises their frustration and – significantly – sets himself a three-year target for addressing the problem. That would leave the Tories with two years at most before the next election to persuade young people that they have the right policies to help get them on the property ladder.
“You walk down any High Street in Britain today and you’ll see young people with their faces pressed up against the estate agents’ window dreaming of either owning or renting a decent home,” Javid says. “You see it everywhere.”
He adds: “In the 1990s, if you were a young couple and put aside five per cent of your salary a year you would have saved enough for a deposit on your first home in three years. Today, it will take 24 years. That illustrates how incredibly difficult it is. It’s perfectly normal for people to feel they want to have a decent home, whether to rent or buy, and it feels out of reach. I want to get them onto the housing ladder so they can start climbing it. Too many people at the moment feel like they can’t even get onto it.
“Within two or three years we need to show a real step change in housing delivery so that people can start feeling that they can either own their own home or, if they’re renting, that it’s not taking up so much of their after-tax income.”
Javid’s ambitions could yet be stymied by Brexit, of course. The construction industry has made clear that the end of free movement, and the ready supply of migrant labour, could have a damaging effect on their sector.
The minister says: “It’s something I’ve discussed with them and they have taken a very mature approach. So for example, you’ll see a lot more apprentices in the sector than before. They’re investing more in skills than they ever did before, and that helps to bring more talent on board.
“No one can tell you today what the immigration might look like post-Brexit, but we have been clear that the kind of system we’re going to have will allow us to continue to have the talent we need to support our key industries.”
The fallout from Grenfell Tower tragedy continues to take up much of the minister’s time. The deadly blaze saw around 80 die, dozens of families left homeless, and highlighted the fact that tower blocks across the country are encased in flammable cladding.
Javid says every survivor who is ready to move out of their emergency accommodation has been offered either a temporary or permanent home. There are a handful, however, who are still too traumatised by what they witnessed to take that initial step.
He also reveals that further, more detailed tests of the cladding and insulation on other high-rise blocks over the summer showed that the “vast majority” did not pass safety checks.
“Once you know that a building has not passed those tests, or even when you suspect it may not, the owner of that property must take immediate action to make that building safe so the tenants know everything is being done that should be,” the minister says, although he has been heartened by their response.
“They have taken it very seriously. They have gone out and got the professional advice from their local fire and rescue service, who have told them what immediate action they need to take. And now, once they’ve got the final test results, many of them are in the process of removing their cladding. They also need to make sure that they put measures in place that give assurance to tenants that all necessary steps are being taken.”
Javid’s decision to support Remain during the referendum surprised many of his colleagues, given his widely-known Eurosceptic views. Despite dark mutterings that he had blown any chance he had of being Conservative leader, the Bromsgrove MP insists he has no regrets.
“I think a lot of people had that decision that they had to make and that’s what I did. But I also was very clear that we should be having a referendum and that whatever the result was, it wasn’t for me or you, it was a collective decision of the British people.”
Following David Cameron’s departure in the wake of the referendum, Javid backed Stephen Crabb’s short-lived bid to succeed him in Number 10. Crabb said the pair, who both had working class upbringings, were the “blue collar” ticket, contrasting their backgrounds with the likes of Boris Johnson, who was still in the running at that time.
So does Javid think that Theresa May’s successor must be someone from humble roots?
“First of all, we’re not looking for another leader. We’ve got a great one right now.
“Whatever happens in the future in the Tory Party, it will always depend on the talent of the people who put themselves forward.
“I don’t think their backgrounds have too much to do with it, it’s more about what do they have to offer and what can they do for the country.”
A portrait of Winston Churchill in traditional pose, large cigar in hand, gazes down from the wall of Javid’s office in the Commons. Does he see himself one day joining the list of the wartime leader’s successors at the head of the Tory Party?
“I don’t have any ambitions other than delivering a massive step change in the delivery of homes in this country,” he says. “That’s my number one ambition.”
This article first appeared in the House magazine