Another day, another Secretary of State for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. The new man in the hot seat is Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP, with former Work and Pensions Secretary, Rt Hon Esther McVey MP, joining him as Minister for Housing and Planning, charged with the housing and planning brief.
Everyone will be looking to see if this will lead to a shake-up at the Department, with Jenrick and McVey’s respective views on the housing crisis and problems on the high street a little unclear at this moment in time – but the historic lack of stability at this crucial department has not gone unnoticed by councils across different political colours.
Both Jenrick and McVey will likely point to their modest upbringings compared to a Prime Minister many will decry for his privileged past (and present), championing getting more people on the housing ladder (as Johnson referenced in his speech outside No. 10). But with a real estate sector continually frustrated by the lack of consistency at Marsham House, Jenrick will have to work fast to emphasise that this is a job he wants for the long-term, not just as a stepping stone to one of the ‘Great Offices of State.’
A clue as to where the Department will look for its solutions could lie within an overwhelmingly free market advocating cabinet. Amongst those elevated to the Cabinet yesterday’s reshuffle were Liz Truss at International Trade, Dominic Raab at the Foreign office, Priti Patel at Home Office with Kwasi Kwarteng as Jo Johnson’s deputy at BEIS – four of the five authors of Britannia Unchained. The book, published at the beginning of David Cameron’s leadership, is a love letter to the free market, which calls for significant scale backs to current regulations and, in many senses, a return to Thatcherism.
But what do we know about Boris Johnson’s personal philosophy when it comes to housing and development? From his time as Mayor, the general consensus is that policy really was directed by his Deputy Mayors Sir Eddie Lister and Richard Blakeway – Boris Johnson was more a Chairman than Chief Executive. There were what some might called visionary, others might say foolhardy projects that were abandoned – the immensely costly and ultimately futile “Garden Bridge” projects binned by Sadiq Khan was one, and Boris airport in the Thames Estuary was another.
On housing, Boris dropped his predecessor Ken Livingstone’s target of 50% affordable homes per development arguing that the target had never been met and just blocked delivery. He also called in decisions that were refused by local authorities – the Mount Pleasant former post office site in Islington is a case in example; he signed off the development of 681 homes with only 98 with affordable rent. However, he did try to ameliorate the 80% of market rate rents for affordable homes imposed by the Government – the average affordable rents under his programme were 65%. He also made it clear that he did not want to see London turned into Paris with poorer residents living in the outskirt and awarded Housing Zone status to key strategic areas in London which helped accelerate councils’ house building programmes.
One thing we do know is that Boris is most definitely pro-homeownership and with most of government funding already directed to homeownership, he does not need to change much – he just needs to give a clear direction. However, after years of indecision, short-termism and churn at MHCLG, Boris Johnson would do well to commit to his ministerial picks, or face more groans from a property industry that is desperate for consistency.
Local council leaders and developers should at least be reassured by the presence of Sir Eddie Lister – Boris’ consigliere at City Hall – as his Chief of Staff in Number 10. As a former long standing Leader of Wandsworth Council, Margaret Thatcher’s favourite London Council, he will be attuned to the needs of both the real estate sector and local councils. “Steady Eddie” Lister was crucial to delivering on Boris’s agenda at City Hall – time will tell if he manages to transfer that capability successfully to Downing Street, or whether everything becomes un-stuck thanks to the tortured politics of Brexit.