What’s on the table for the new housing minister?
As Christopher Pincher steps up to become the 10th housing minister in a decade, James Wilmore takes a look at what awaits him in his new role
A new housing minister has picked up the keys and it feels like Groundhog Day. Step forward Christopher Pincher, the Tory member for Tamworth. Pincher is the 10th housing minister in the last decade – a shocking statistic even by recent standards of ministerial churn.
The 50-year-old Walsall-born MP, who took up the job following Boris Johnson’s latest reshuffle, joined the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) from the Foreign Office, where he was minister for Europe and the Americas.
Pincher, a former deputy chief whip under Theresa May, took to Twitter to express his “delight” at the new role, although he was “sad” at leaving his job at the FCO.
It’s understandable. His role at MHCLG is as hard-nosed and domestic as is imaginable.
As parliamentarians know, housing has always occupied the hearts and minds of the British public. But it has become a lightning rod for more deep-rooted problems, summed up in one word: inequality. And this is never more apparent than in the UK’s dysfunctional housing market. The housing crisis did not permeate the general election campaign as much as expected – mainly due to Brexit – but it is never far from the headlines.
So what is piling up in Pincher’s inbox?
After Theresa May’s swerve to the left on housing, the Conservatives have returned to a more recognisable focus on home ownership.
Last month MHCLG unveiled plans for a scheme dubbed ‘First Homes’, which will offer some first-time buyers discounts of 30%. The scheme has already proved controversial, however, as critics argue it will hamper the supply of affordable homes. Other prospective house buyers have also been dangled a carrot with a pledge to encourage a “new market for long-term fixed-rate mortgages”.
Social housing tenants are too being promised a chance to experience a taste of home ownership. The Conservative manifesto vowed to extend a voluntary Right to Buy scheme for housing association residents, and a shared ownership Right to Buy scheme for social housing tenants is also promised.
It’s not all about home ownership though. Renters have been promised a “better deal” through a yet-to-be-tabled Renters Reform Bill. To the annoyance of landlord groups, the Conservative manifesto retained a commitment to end so-called ‘no-fault evictions’. This means landlords will no longer be able to evict tenants without a reason when their tenancy ends. The Bill is also expected to include the concept of a ‘lifetime deposit’, designed to make it easier for tenants to move more freely.
The fact remains, however, that the UK suffers from a severe housing shortage. Prior to the general election, the Government vowed to build 300,000 homes a year. But this has been dialled down to the more muted ambition of “at least” a million new homes over the current Parliament.
Question marks also remain over what type of housing this will be. While Labour pledged to be building at least 150,000 council and social homes annually within five years, the Conservatives failed to give a breakdown. Their manifesto committed to delivering hundreds of thousands of “affordable homes”, which remains a woolly concept. Boris Johnson has vowed to publish a social housing white paper which will “empower tenants and support the continued supply of social homes” but what this will involve is unclear.
Either way, the Government wants new homes to be built to more exacting environmental standards to tackle the climate emergency. In his first announcement as housing minister, Pincher launched a competition for designers with ideas around developing low-carbon homes. This move follows proposals for a ‘Future Home Standard’, which means from 2025 all new homes must have 80% fewer carbon emissions. A ‘social housing decarbonisation fund’ was also promised in the Conservatives’ manifesto.
But it does not stop there. Ministers believe that part of the problem with new-build housing is aesthetics. Bleeding through ministerial speeches has been the concept of ‘building beautiful’. It culminated in a report, overseen by the late Roger Scruton, which has inspired MHCLG to launch a ‘national model design code’.
Bear in mind however that the vast majority of new housing is built by the UK’s giant PLC housebuilders. A string of horror stories involving substandard new-build homes has resulted in the Government launching a New Homes Ombudsman, to protect homebuyers faced with “shoddy building work”. A ban on new-build homes being sold on a leasehold basis in future is also still planned, with critics referring to the system as “fleecehold”.
The other issue is where and how new homes should be built. The Tory manifesto vowed to “protect and enhance” Britain’s precious green belt. Instead, ministers will prioritise building on brownfield sites. This idea has caught the eye of companies building homes in factories, using so-called modern methods of construction (MMC). The Government is backing this fledgling idea and working with a number of offsite manufacturers to speed up the housebuilding process.
Meanwhile a white paper has been promised on reforms to the planning system to “ensure it works better for the public and small builders”, MHCLG has said.
It’s a head-spinning list. And this is without mentioning homelessness, which falls under the remit of another MHCLG junior minister, Luke Hall.
One issue will inevitably overshadow Pincher’s term in office – the ongoing response to the cladding crisis in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire.
The Government has committed to a series of reforms around building safety. But for some, more immediate action is needed. Hundreds of residents of high-rise blocks are dealing with crippling bills to cover 24-hour fire safety surveillances and the cost of removing and fixing dangerous cladding. While the Government is providing money to fix Grenfell-style ACM cladding, it has failed to act on other types of dangerous cladding, amid a legal minefield for property freeholders and leaseholders. And with the second phase of the Grenfell Tower public inquiry having resumed this month, scheduled to run into next year, it is destined to stay high up the agenda.
Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, has taken ownership of the Grenfell response. Whether Pincher will have vacated MHCLG and dropped off the keys by the time the inquiry concludes is anybody’s guess.
James Wilmore is a freelance journalist specialising in housing and construction