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Matthew Pennycook: There needs to be less talk and more action on housing reform

(UK Parliament)

9 min read

Since his appointment as shadow housing secretary in December, Matthew Pennycook has heard a lot of rhetoric on tackling the housing crisis. He tells Eleanor Langford it’s time to turn that talk into action.

Matthew Pennycook, Labour’s recently-appointed shadow minister for housing, says much of his role feels like déjà vu. The Greenwich and Woolwich MP began his parliamentary career serving as parliamentary private secretary to then-shadow housing secretary John Healey between 2015 and 2016. Almost seven years on, he says very little about the brief has changed.

“I’ve come full circle,” he says. “One of the things that has struck me is that all the problems are all the same.”

“It’s just frustrating to see not only that things haven’t improved, but have become worse,” he goes on. “We talk about lots of things as crises, but I think the housing crisis is genuinely one. It’s a series of really entrenched and interlocking problems, and you’ve got to have bold solutions to tackle those. I don’t see any of that.”

Pennycook has a good handle on the interlocking issues that make up his brief, having served as a councillor in Greenwich, south London, prior to becoming an MP in 2015. His appointment to the housing brief marks his third shadow ministerial post, having already served as shadow Brexit minister under Jeremy Corbyn and shadow climate change minister under Keir Starmer.

The 39-year-old is considered something of a rising star in Labour circles but appears modest about his position within the party. Meeting over coffee in Portcullis House, Pennycook won’t be drawn on Labour’s wider direction, joking that it’s “slightly outside my remit”. Of his brief, however, he has plenty to say.

The government position of housing minister is known for being unsettled. Since 2010, the role has been held by 11 different people, sometimes for as little as six months. Pennycook has experienced this so-called “revolving door” in the three months he’s held the shadow post, after Stuart Andrew was shuffled in to replace Christopher Pincher in February.

“The churning through housing ministers is a real problem. It’s seen as a sort of stepping-stone into more senior roles, which I think is a shame. The churn moves people on before they’ve developed any expertise in that area.”

He argues, however, that the decades-long failure to tackle the housing crisis goes beyond one job. “It’s part and parcel of a wider problem, which is that you can’t really solve the housing crisis purely as a housing minister, or even within that department.”

The issues he first grappled with back in 2015 – such as building affordable homes, fixing private renting, and reforming the planning system – require solutions “driven from the centre” and “given a status [they] don’t quite have”.

He fears, however, that housing has been pushed to the sidelines in favour of the government’s flagship levelling up commitments. The word housing has even been shuffled down its department’s title – it was renamed from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) in September 2021.

But Pennycook also isn’t a huge fan of the rebranding for another reason. “I do think the title of the department is slightly problematic, because it glides over the fact that local government is absolutely key to making any of this happen. It’s been sort of airbrushed out.”

The housing crisis is a very entrenched systemic crisis. A couple of weekend op-eds are not going to solve it.

As for the prominence of housing on the department’s agenda, he argues the issue was an “afterthought” in the Levelling Up White Paper published earlier this year. “Clearly, someone has said we need something on housing and shoved in a last-minute, quite vague section on housing standards,” Pennycook says.

Housing and planning should instead be “central to levelling up,” he adds – an unusual endorsement of the concept from a Labour politician. Does he think his party would adopt the phrase coined by Boris Johnson’s administration if it won power?

“I don’t think we’d abandon the word, or the concept, because I think it is easily understandable to people,” he suggests. “We just want to actually make it happen on a genuine level rather than talk about it. Or, as I suspect the government might try to do, build a few bits of infrastructure and then claim that that’s the job done.”

The man responsible for much of that talk is DLUHC’s inaugural secretary of state – Michael Gove. Pennycook is cautiously complimentary of his Tory opponent, wryly describing him as “by far the most interesting politician on the government benches”.

“My concern with him – and I’m just looking at his past form – is that it’s very heavy on the rhetoric and announcements without necessarily the follow through,” he adds.

“So, let’s see the follow through. We want to see the substance. The housing crisis is a very entrenched systemic crisis. A couple of weekend op-eds are not going to solve it.

“It needs that sustained focus, but if he can get the government to buy into that focus, and he can bring forward some of the reforms that we’ve been arguing for, for a long time, we will support those.”

One area where he praises Gove’s progress to date is his work on building safety and cladding in the wake of the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire. The Levelling Up Secretary told major housing developers in January that they needed to cough up £4bn to help fund the replacement of dangerous cladding. At the time of writing, a final agreement has yet to be reached.

The move was a welcome “change of approach and tone” from that of Gove’s predecessor Robert Jenrick, Pennycook says. But he warned that the remediation scheme “falls short of a comprehensive solution to the building safety crisis”.

“There’s still lots of questions that need to be asked, there’s still lots of gaps, and there are still lots of issues that we feel the government hasn’t adequately resolved,” he continued.

“Is it just £4bn? Can he raise £4bn? What happens if he can’t raise the £4bn and where does the money come from? We still haven’t had definitive confirmation it won’t be taken out of the affordable housing budget in his own department.”

In other areas, Pennycook is less complimentary of Gove, most notably on the lack of reform in the “broken private rented sector”.

“We were promised legislation in the Queen’s Speech – the renters reform bill. Theresa May first announced it. And now we’re looking at a white paper, so that’s years away. There’s a lot of talk, but where’s the legislation?”

What about home ownership? Pennycook concedes that, under the current system, “only the most affluent” among the younger generation and those with “significant assets that have been handed down” are able to buy property. Could the answer be a move to a long-term renting culture, as seen on the Continent?

He responds that the ideal housing market involves “a bit of everything”. “There will be lots of people who want to own a home and their own home; we should help them do so.

“The corresponding piece of the jigsaw to that is a private rented sector that’s more stable, where you can raise a family.”

The government has committed to building 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s, but Pennycook doesn’t believe this is the answer to boosting home ownership. “I don’t think supply is a panacea for affordability. It’s a much wider picture,” he explains.

I don’t think supply is a panacea for affordability. It’s a much wider picture.

“Even if they met their 300,000 target – or even 350,000 or 400,000 – house prices wouldn’t come down. When you’re talking about homeownership it’s a much broader conversation about things like mortgage finance, and how you give first time buyers who look riskier access to mortgage finance.

Building on that scale could come with other risks. Pennycook is a big believer in “placemaking” which he defines as creating communities where “families and households thrive,” with the proper infrastructure of schools, shops and other facilities to support them. Without proper planning reform, he warns new developments risk becoming “just dormitories where people live”.

“If I had to say one thing that the government misses when they talk about planning, I think it very much comes from the fact that they think liberalising the planning system is the answer to everything,” he says.

“And, actually, what it has meant across the country… is unconstrained planning developments, which are heavily car-dependent, and don’t have sufficient amenities for those that live there. It’s got to be about people and placemaking, rather than what developers need out of the system.”

Ultimately, what Labour wants to see from the government on housing and planning is less talk, more action. Much of the conversation with Pennycook comes back to the lack of detail in the big policies pushed by Gove and his department.

This includes its scheme for housing Ukrainian refugees. On the day we meet, a website for the public to express interest in housing those fleeing the conflict has crashed within hours of launch due to demand. Pennycook says he “cautiously welcomes” the scheme, but criticises the lack of clarity over how it will function.

“My sense from my conversations is that many local leaders are scratching their heads as to what’s required of them,” he says.

“The problem we’ve got as of today is that the announcement… raises a huge number of questions about how it will work in practice. It’s hugely untested. We want to see the details.”

“There is an outpouring of feeling from people who want to help,” he adds. “It is worth taking advantage of that, but it can’t be the extent of [the response].”

With this, as with many policy areas on Pennycook’s turf, all he can do for now is wait and see. The brief is already “very, very busy” just a few months in, he says, and there’s still a “huge potential legislative agenda in the pipeline”.

Perhaps the coming year will be a chance for the up-and-coming MP, who is relatively unknown outside his party, to make his mark on Westminster. Issues like planning reform and placemaking are hot button topics for many on the government benches. With levelling up high on Boris Johnson’s agenda, Pennycook has ample opportunity to shape how such policies play out in the Commons.

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