Patch Thompson is a Young Fabian and member of the contributing writer team. He tweets at @PatchThompson92.
During January’s cabinet reshuffle, Sajid Javid got something of a promotion. The Bromsgrove MP found himself appointed Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, having previously been only the humble Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.
The addition of the word ‘housing’ to Javid’s title was supposed to highlight the government’s commitment to solving the housing crisis, as well as being - apparently - a nostalgic throwback to the post of ‘Minister for Housing’ that Harold Macmillan once held. It may have been one of the few controversy free episodes of the two day reshuffle, but it was also a completely empty gesture.
It is symptomatic of the Tory approach to housing - all rhetoric and no substance - that their reaction to the housing crisis is to rename a ministerial position, rather than to develop new policy. Equally exasperating is the appointment of Dominic Raab, a well known opponent of reformed Green Belt planning laws, as the Minister for Housing and Planning. If you need further proof that the rebrand is nothing more than window dressing, consider that Javid was already responsible for housing under his previous title.
The government doesn’t yet understand that much of the swing to Labour in last years’s General Election - particularly among young voters - was driven by bread and butter issues such as wages and job security, house prices, and housing. It isn’t, as some Conservative commentators have suggested, that a generation of voters has been duped into supporting Labour and needs an education in the horrors of Marxism-Lenninism to bring them back to the light. Rather, people have simply run out of patience with a government that no longer appears to care about a plethora of everyday issues, with housing being among the foremost
But the left cannot, and must not, be complacent. The next Labour government will be expected to deliver on pledges made to voters on housing. Rather than looking to reform or readjust the way housing policy is currently made and implemented, a radical new approach is needed.
Instead of closeting housing policy in a combined department, Labour should commit to the creation of a dedicated new Department of Housing. The new Secretary of State for Housing would be tasked with working to tackle housing shortages across the United Kingdom and be given the authority of a full secretary of state to do so. The housing crisis - built on a chronic lack of affordable housing both to buy and to rent - is a national crisis and needs a co-ordinated, national solution.
The main task of this new department would be to act as a central ministry for housing policy, using regional offices to guide this with local needs taken into account. The regional element is vital. The housing crisis is too often seen as a London, or south eastern, issue. However, from unsafe student HMOs and fire safety in tower blocks, through to the nationwide shortage of affordable council homes, there are a range of issues to be urgently addressed. Moreover, if Labour aims to rebalance Britain’s regional economies, this must transform housing provision and infrastructure across the country.
A national approach would not be limited simply to running regional offices throughout the UK. Partnerships with local authorities would be essential. Councils would be empowered to build and operate council housing, within a national framework that would see expertise in design and construction shared and the potential for the government to underwrite some of the investment required. Infrastructure projects would also have to be taken into account. A Department of Housing would be able to influence policy making in Whitehall and ensure that where new home care built, they are not left isolated.
Finally, the new department would oversee national efforts to enforce building regulations on developers, including fire safety, the conduct of landlords owning HMOs and general renting legislation. Again, this would not be a fully centralised process. The department would oversee the rebuilding of local capacity to carry out these functions - from training fire safety inspectors to evaluating potentially dangerous rented properties - and support councils when dealing with large developers or commercial landlords.
A combination of a centralised new housing strategy, run from a department with power in Whitehall, and trust placed in regional and local officials to implement policy, is what is needed to break the housing deadlock. It is also a radical move that would show Labour’s political intent to deliver on the promises we are making. While the Tories struggle to appear caring, Labour can commit to policy aimed to improve people’s lives and transform how housing is managed throughout the United Kingdom.
Patch Thompson is a Young Fabian and member of the contributing writer team. He tweets at @PatchThompson92