BORIS Johnson has settled scores and set the tone for his Government with the ruthless ejection of the old guard and the formation of a hardline cabinet line-up, but has social housing been kicked into exile on the backbenches too?
It’s a key question for the housing sector, as it comes to terms with the inevitable shift in the political climate. Whatever emerges from Johnson’s new administration, policy-wise, regime change has undoubtedly thrown the sector onto the backfoot.
For a while, under Theresa May, it did seem as though social housing was beginning to make some headway in Westminster and Whitehall. There was something to work with, even if there was rather more warm rhetoric and promising talk than actual substance, but it was a far cry from what had gone before under David Cameron’s tenure as PM.
Now we must wonder, to what extent the old battles are going to require fighting all over again, the cases remade, the fingers crossed in the hope that Johnson’s team are willing to listen?
For now, then, the sector falls back on the ritual of greeting, with its inevitable air of supplication.
“Housing associations share his [Johnson’s] ambition to bring a divided country back together,” said NHF chief, Kate Henderson. “This is why we are dedicated to building new social homes in all parts of the country, as well as creating thriving and mixed villages, towns and cities.
“Housing must be the top domestic priority for the new Prime Minister, as he sets out his vision for the country in the coming weeks. This is not only because we have a severe shortage of homes in England, but also because two years on from the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower there is still much urgent work to do to ensure the country’s homes are safe.”
Meanwhile, councillor James Jamieson, chairman of the Local Government Association, greeted the new Prime Minister thus: “Councils are uniquely placed to support and build strong communities, lead the delivery of joined up services that can help to change lives for the better and build strong local economies that support your national economic priorities.
“From building more homes and supporting families, giving young people the best start in life through to supporting people through older life and ensuring we have a skilled workforce that supports UK businesses to compete on the global stage, councils are key to delivering his priorities.
“Through devolution, councils can empower their communities and at the same time, ensure funding is used efficiently to deliver real change. This is the perfect opportunity to bring central and local government closer together to realise the opportunities devolution can offer.”
There’s an unescapable sense of ‘please don’t shut us out’ to such greetings, whether that is intended or not. The approach may be perfectly business-like for the previous incumbents, but Johnson – as his colourful history demonstrates – is an entirely different kettle of fish.
So here we are, James Brokenshire is gone; replaced as secretary of state at the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) by the relatively unknown Robert Jenrick MP. Quite how amenable he will prove remains to be seen.
The same can’t be said of Esther McVey, appointed minister of state at MHCLG; she has form. Indeed, you might be excused for wondering if this isn’t an example of Johnson’s humour (along with a clear desire to pack his cabinet with committed brexiteers).
McVey won few if any friends in the housing sector during her time as secretary of state at the Department of Work & Pensions, especially in Merseyside; she demonstrated she was anything but amenable. There is little reason to suspect anything different in her new – albeit more junior – cabinet attending role here.
Meanwhile, the sector has some old ‘friends’ to consider. Though Grant Shapps and Dominic Raab have nothing to do with housing in their cabinet briefs – transport secretary and foreign secretary respectively – they nevertheless have served time as housing ministers. Neither one of them were especially warm towards the sector, and Shapps of course was positively disdainful. Could such attitudes percolate to their new cabinet colleagues?
Whatever or not that’s the case, McVey’s appointment to MHCLG certainly caused some ripples of alarm, even outrage, as industry figures reacted to the news.
Julie Fadden, chief executive of South Liverpool Homes, provided a (safe for work) flavour of some of the reactions when she tweeted:
This is the worst news ever – the woman who has imposed the most vicious welfare reforms on vulnerable people is now in charge of Housing, communities and local government – there really is no hope – we need a general election NOW!!! https://t.co/Vf4GVylAz0
— Julie Fadden (@SLH_Julie) July 24, 2019
Offering a political reaction to Johnson’s debut appearance as Prime Minister, shadow housing secretary John Healey tweeted:
Johnson’s first speech as PM is silent on housing crisis and 9 years of Conservative failure. When nearly 3 in 4 people say the country has a crisis, he shows he’s out of touch with millions locked out of homeownership or struggling with high rents and thousands who are homeless
— John Healey MP (@JohnHealey_MP) July 24, 2019
But he had warmer words for his departed counterpart, James Brokenshire:
I’m sorry to see you go – you’ve been unfailingly decent and dedicated as housing secretary, even though it’s been tough at times. In leaving the brief, I hope you won’t leave housing behind https://t.co/qndnAwK0MW
— John Healey MP (@JohnHealey_MP) July 24, 2019
Now we wait, for the Queen’s Speech and the Spending Review, to see where Johnson and his new regime aims to take us, housing or no.
Main Image: Boris Johnson visits the Tokyo Metropolitan Government in July 2017, during his time as foreign secretary. © British Embassy Tokyo. CC BY 2.0.