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Graham Awards


Industry Views - Why Are Housing Ministers So Mediocre These Days?

Sir Simon Clarke’s call for Rishi Sunak to be ousted from Downing Street may well express what many of his MP colleagues believe.

But it doesn’t mean that Clarke, a former and short-lived Housing Secretary, isn’t a clot for saying it. Or - to quote a sample of the on-the-record comments of his colleagues - he is “facile”, “divisive”, “self-indulgent” and “tribal”.

Their belief is that he’s made a Tory victory in the General Election less likely, rather than more, by showing the party as seriously divided.

Beneath the headlines, spin and panic of headless chicken-MPs, there is another way of looking at Clarke’s hapless and hopeless comments: they illustrate the poor quality of politicians in charge of housing in recent years.

Remember that in addition to Clarke, the housing portfolio at Cabinet and sub-Cabinet level in recent times has been held by the likes of Kris Hopkins (a politician so low-profile that few housing insiders had heard of him when he was appointed); Chris Pincher (yes, that Chris Pincher); and Esther McVey (so dedicated to the role of housing minister that she also worked for GB News for part of the time while holding the post - and earned criticism for doing so).

Top of their brief

It wasn’t always this way. For a time, really outstanding politicians were housing ministers.

Even if one didn’t agree with their politics, nor necessarily what they did as housing ministers, they were undoubtedly on top of their brief and were serious minded politicians.

Ian Gow, a close confidante of Thatcher, held the post in the mid-80s; later, Michael Howard had the job before becoming Conservative leader; in the Blair government Nick Raynsford - who introduced the Decent Homes Standard to the social rented sector - was housing minister before the likes of Yvette Cooper and Margaret Beckett. And in the coalition led by David Cameron, Grant Shapps was housing minister after holding the shadow role for some years.

I have a feeling that Michael Gove will be the only politician with a prominent housing role in recent years to be remembered as being both a heavyweight and making solid contributions to the sector: certainly, most of those who served beneath him as housing ministers will not.

So here’s the point. From the 1970s to around the early 2010s, the calibre of politician in the housing role was generally high. Since then, with very few exceptions, less so.

Why is this?

Perhaps the housing role (and other posts, no doubt) inevitably reflect the calibre of Prime Minister leading the government in question. After all, who would rank the premierships of May, Johnson, Truss and Sunak as mighty as those of Thatcher, Blair or possibly even Brown and Cameron?

Perhaps the calibre of incumbent has diminished alongside the role of the state in housing. There are far fewer council homes today and ambitious house-building targets - a favourite policy of both parties - are now left to the free market and private house builders to achieve, rather than government and the public sector.

Hiding to nothing

Rapid change, too, reduces the impact a minister can make and thus diminishes their reputation. In recent years few housing ministers have lasted 12 months in post (many rather less) so their impact has been negligible at best.

Perhaps there’s another reason. The ‘housing crisis’ defies both accurate definition and an easy solution: holding the role is being on a hiding to nothing.

Without an unthinkable amount of public spending, no government is likely to make a dent in the levels of homelessness, or fund an energy efficiency retrofitting programme, or build enough homes to stop demand exceeding supply and pushing prices up further.

And if no government can or will do this, why would a politician want to take on a role likely to end in failure?

Perhaps they would take the plunge if they were extraordinarily dedicated to the housing cause or - alas - if they only wanted the job as a stepping stone to leadership ambitions.

I’ll let you choose which side you put Sir Simon Clarke on.

  • Proper Estate Agent

    Its a pointless roll. If you let 10,000,000 who knows who into the country, build 600,000 houses, 1 hospital and 17 new schools even people as thick as most MP's can do that math; well actually...

  • icon

    With the green lobby-NIMBY coalition in the ascendancy it doesn't really matter who the Housing Minister is - even Clement Attlee would probably fail to make an impact today. The 300,000 annual new homes target is just pie in the sky- it might be achieved on a one-off basis one year, but it will not be achieved consistently for a sufficient number of years to solve the supply crisis the country faces, both in terms of addressing demographic changes and replacing the substandard nature of much of the current housing stock. In addition, extra housing needs to be accompanied by investment in social infrastructure, but the state of the government's finances renders this highly unlikely in the quantity necessary (and this situation will not alter under a Labour administration). Despite the present difficulties the UK housing market is experiencing, 'bricks and mortar' is a one-way bet longer term.


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