Tackling the housing crisis is firmly on the levelling up agenda – but will the revolving door of housing ministers finally stop?
Illustration by Tracy Worrall
When Stuart Andrew was appointed housing minister in February’s reshuffle, he became the 11th MP to hold the role in the last 12 years. Even by Westminster standards it is a startling statistic.
Amid the housing crisis, this dizzying rate of churn takes on an added seriousness. It comes as the government’s 300,000 homes a year target looks increasingly precarious.
So is this ministerial revolving door hampering efforts to tackle the crisis? Former holders of the post have mixed views.
John Healey, Labour’s last housing minister who spent just under a year in the job, believes the “stop-start” of ministers is a “huge problem”. He says: “It takes any minister six months to get fully on top of their brief. And unless you have a minister coming in with a clear plan, they are moved on before they can have an impact.”
He stops short, however, of claiming churn is the cause of the housing crisis and instead makes a political point. “The major problem is having the wrong policies and having the wrong plan,” he says.
The revolving door is not uniquely a Conservative problem – Labour got through seven housing ministers between 2001 and 2010. Healey accepts Labour was no better. “Ours was a government in which ministers were moved too regularly and that included the housing post,” he says.
Caroline Flint, who had the job for 10 months during Gordon Brown’s premiership, says the constant rotation can stifle risk-taking. “It invites a new housing minister to play safe and potentially avoid any big decision that carries risks in the expectation that it won’t be their problem within a year,” she says.
The job is also complex, she adds, with housing a “mishmash of differing interests”. This ranges from developers who “prefer green fields to build on and quick planning decisions,” to local councils wanting to build social homes but “without the resources to do it at scale”. “[There are also] neighbourhoods that need regenerating to overcome a collapse in the local housing market.”
On top of this, Flint adds, are the pressing issues of homelessness, getting to net-zero and post-Grenfell safety policies. (Although on the latter it is usually the secretary of state at what is now the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities who has led on the government’s response to the tragedy.)
Housing, according to Flint, also suffers from a “lack of a united voice”. She explains: “A crisis for those living in social housing is different for private renters and owner-occupiers. Regional diversity adds to the complexity.” It could be argued this dilutes the power of those lobbying government for change.
Lord Rooker, who served for nearly a year under Tony Blair, brands the churn of ministers “tragic”. He says it results in: “no follow-through, no chase-up, and no serious effort at the top”.
But one former Conservative housing minister warns against obsessing over the high turnover rate. Mark Prisk, who had the job under David Cameron for just under a year, says: “Policy rests across government and not just with one person. But it is important to have one individual taking the lead. And clearly it would be better if ministers were given 18 months, maybe two years, to make a difference.”
Christopher Pincher, who held the role prior to the last reshuffle, was just days away from hitting the two-year mark. His stint was the longest since Brandon Lewis, who relinquished the role in July 2016 after exactly two years.
Another criticism often levelled at housing ministers is their lack of sector experience and, sometimes, their voting record. Andrew has come under criticism for his past vote against an amendment to the Housing and Planning Bill requiring landlords to make their homes “fit for human habitation”.
It must feel a bit like speed dating. Somebody pings the bell just when you thought you were getting on famously
Prisk suggests that a lack of prior experience is not necessarily a problem. “A minister’s job is to listen, to have good judgment and an understanding of the wider context,” he says. “No minister is going to be an expert in every field they are asked to partake in.”
On the latest incumbent, he adds: “Stuart Andrew has always struck me as being very sensible. What matters now is people in the sector provide him with the expertise.”
One of those people will be Gavin Smart, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH). Smart says he has written to Andrew offering to meet him to “discuss the challenges”. But he points out it is the fourth such letter he has written since becoming CIH boss in 2019. For the housing sector, there is always frustration and often a degree of wry humour on reshuffle day when the inevitable happens and another housing minister comes along.
“It is fair to say that changing housing ministers at the speed we have seen in the past 10 years is not helpful for the sector, or indeed for the ministers asked to take on the brief,” Smart says. “While it might bring some fresh energy and perspective, the housing and planning brief is challenging given the scale of the task at hand and the ambitions for reform which government has set out, and as such it needs understanding and continuity.”
Ben Derbyshire, former president of the Royal Institute of British Architects and chair of architects HTA Design, agrees the constant churn is an issue. “The learning curve [for a new minister] is always a problem,” he says. Another element, he argues, is that some MPs see the job as a “stepping stone” to a weightier position, with a number of housing ministers having gone into the cabinet as their next posting. “For some it’s not even a stepping stone, just a parking place on the ministerial snakes and ladders board,” he adds.
Derbyshire suggests the revolving door is a “symptom” of the housing crisis, which the government is giving insufficient attention. “I fail to understand that [lack of focus]. It is now an issue that affects just about every part of society, except the very wealthiest. It’s a real vote-winner, but fails to make significant traction.”
Prisk is aware of the sector’s frustration. “It must feel a bit like speed dating. Somebody pings the bell just when you thought you were getting on famously.” He points out, however, that policy will often remain the same despite a change of personnel.
The benefits to this high turnover? The current Cabinet includes four former housing ministers – Dominic Raab, Alok Sharma, Grant Shapps and Brandon Lewis, plus an ex-shadow housing minister in Michael Gove. “That’s important as the industry should have friends who understand it across the Cabinet,” says Prisk.
The housing sector has previously argued for somebody with Cabinet-level responsibility to have sole charge of housing, rather than coming under the auspices of the Department for Levelling Up and its previous incarnations.
Healey agrees the brief should have its own fully-fledged Cabinet role. “The scale of the crisis and the cost crisis in housing is such that it warrants that type of national priority,” he says.
Flint points out that, occasionally, housing ministers have been invited to attend Cabinet meetings. Aside from this, she raises the idea of creating a department for infrastructure to include housing and planning with a “relentless focus on building for the future”.
Ultimately, though, for Derbyshire, the fault lies at the very top. He says: “Prime ministers don’t seem to understand that their longevity and their popularity would benefit from doing something meaningful about such a serious problem.”
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