While our politicians are squabbling over Brexit, other critical areas of policy appear to have been lost in the fray. Lamenting this loss of focus, Ali Akbor urges ministers to snap out of it – and make housing a priority
THE much-delayed Social Housing Green Paper was published by the Government last August with minimal fanfare. The timing of its arrival was disappointing to say the least.
Two months earlier, in my role as BME national secretary/treasurer, I was proud to organise a celebratory reception in the House of Lords to highlight the positive role played by BME housing associations over more than three decades. The housing secretary, James Brokenshire, was our keynote speaker.
He had only been in the role for a matter of weeks, but he won many friends. Indeed, I do not recall a single attendee that day who failed to be impressed by his words, tone and demeanour.
There had been a long-held view within the BME housing association sector that concerns of specific relevance to our work were not being heard in Whitehall. But Mr Brokenshire made it refreshingly clear that, under his stewardship, the Ministry for Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) was in listening mode.
He acknowledged that diverse communities faced “particular challenges” and BME housing associations had “done much to meet their needs and provide culturally sensitive housing and support services.”
He told the audience: “You are to be highly commended for this and the wider work your housing associations do to drive innovation and good practice on community issues, and to provide diverse role models at a senior level.”
The Housing Secretary went on to say that the role of BME associations was vital to building more homes, “but equally to help us build thriving, diverse, cohesive communities”.
His words came across as heartfelt, and I do not doubt that they were. Equally sincere, or so it seemed, was the explicit commitment in his speech that “the Social Housing Green Paper…will be published by the end of July.”
Instead, the document appeared weeks later when MPs were on holiday and immediate Parliamentary scrutiny was absent. But why? Could Brexit be blamed for the delay? More importantly, might Brexit be the cause of housing policy inertia in the months and, dare I say, years to come?
Brexit paralysis has stretched across all government departments and caused ministers and their officials to lose focus for a considerable period. Around 6,000 civil servants have been involved in preparations for a no-deal Brexit.
This process continues despite the EU extending the deadline for the UK’s planned departure from 29 March 2019 to 31 October 2019. And Ministers, rather than concentrating on their day jobs, have often seemed more engaged in the politics of Brexit and who the next occupant of 10 Downing Street will be.
Indeed, as its name suggests, current housing minister Kit Malthouse was the driving force behind the “Malthouse Compromise” proposal which seeks to eradicate the Irish backstop – loathed by Brexiteers – from Theresa May’s Brexit deal.
Speaking after the Government failed to meet its July deadline for publishing the Green Paper, Chartered Institute of Housing chief executive Terrie Alafat said: “We know that Brexit is becoming increasingly all-consuming, in large part because its ramifications for our children and their children could be very significant. But while the long-term impact of Brexit remains unclear, the impact of our housing crisis on future generations is depressingly easy to predict.”
And she was right.
Rumours are circulating that the Prime Minister is considering a delay to the Queen’s Speech which sets out the Government’s future legislative agenda. Ironically, this was due to be delivered before Parliament rises for the 2019 summer recess. But uncertainty about Mrs May’s own future – after she pledged to resign once the current phase of Brexit negotiations is concluded – has thrown this into doubt.
Her eventual departure will inevitably lead to a major ministerial reshuffle. A move for Kit Malthouse is likely, especially if Boris Johnson – his former boss when London Mayor – is handed the keys to Number 10.
But, for the country’s sake, the Government’s focus on issues other than Brexit must return soon. And housing should be put to the very top of the priority list.
Ali Akbor is the chief executive of Unity Homes & Enterprise