The average lifespan of a mayfly is about 24 hours, most of which is spent under water before they rise above the surface to mate, lay eggs, collapse and die.
English housing ministers are, it appears, a similar species. This week Theresa May reshuffled her deck of junior ministers and, yet again, the housing sector finds itself dusting off press releases welcoming some new guy to the job. There have been three occupants of the role in the last 12 months, six in the last five years and 16 since 1997.
While it’s possible to overstate how much of a problem this is (most of the policy stuff is, really, done by Treasury or Number 10) the latest juggling around is a bit more of a problem.
This is first because the minister who is leaving, Alok Sharma, had spent the last seven months carrying out a series of roadshows — meeting social housing tenants up and down the country as the background to the Social Housing Green Paper.
You can be as sceptical as you like about how effective this would have been in the final analysis, but the fact is for a Tory minister, or any minister, to spend so much time listening to tenants is virtually unheard of. Alok’s roadshows were said to be quite personal — above and beyond the usual focus group consultation — and the faint hope was that this would make a serious impression on him and result in some sensible policies. He will presumably pass on his notes to the new guy, but the time people spent painstakingly outlining their concerns to him is now effectively wasted.
Which brings us to the new guy. Dominic Raab is an arch-Brexiteer, with a back catalogue of colourful comments about feminism, welfare dependency and immigration that won’t immediately endear him to the more left leaning elements of the housing sector.
But his politics on housing are also concerning.
The last three occupants (Raab and Sharma included) of the housing minister brief have all at times opposed house building in their constituencies. While this is a little counter-intuitive it’s also par for the course. A savvy, or cynical, local MP will support a local campaign when it suits them. But for Raab it goes deeper.
This time last year the government was trying to push through a Housing White Paper, which Sajid Javid was fronting. All the reports suggest proposals to build more on the Green Belt were watered down due to back bench pressure. And Mr Raab has actively talked boasted about his role in this:
“I fought very hard in 2011 and 2012 to retain existing green belt protections, and see off attempts to dilute them. I have been similarly active and engaged in relation to the new proposals which have now been set out in the government’s housing white paper, published on February 7,” he wrote in a letter to a local councillor last year, reported here.
“Working with like-minded MPs, we have secured the retention of existing green belt safeguards, which I know from my own experiences are prized highly by residents in Cobham and Long Ditton.”
So Theresa May has gifted Javid with a junior minister who actively and successfully lobbied against his housing policies only a year ago. Which, from the outside at least, looks like a move to undermine him.
This comes of course, as Theresa May sticks the word housing into Javid’s job title and changes the Department for Communities and Local Government to the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (or HoCoLoGo as it has been christened).
This, honestly, is a move which catches up with a policy shift which happened sometime around 2015, following Eric Pickles departure, when the cabinet minister for DCLG (first Greg Clark and then Javid) took much more personal control over housing policy, as it rose up the government agenda — for better or worse. The recognition that housing is important is welcome, but in truth, that’s all it is, and there hasn’t been a shortage of recognition over the last six months.
A last point on Mr Raab worth noting is his position on deregulation. He penned a think-tank report back in 2012 setting out ways to “reduce the burden of employment regulation” on business. The pesky red tape he identified include things like the minimum wage, minimum working hours and the ban on no-fault dismissal.
Given that a major part of the new role will be sorting out the regulatory system which allowed flammable cladding to be stuck on the outside of Grenfell and hundreds of other towers up and down the country, the appointment of an anti-regulation ideologue should not fill anyone with confidence. This for example is what a previous incumbent, Brandon Lewis, said when someone suggested regulating to introduce sprinklers in high rises:
It can only be hoped that he softens the stronger views, takes a good look at the housing brief and introduces some much needed evidence-based policy. But on the bright side, if he doesn’t, at least he probably won’t be around for long.