We need a housing minister who can see the people at the heart of this crisis.
WE NEED A HOUSING MINISTER WHO CAN SEE THE PEOPLE AT THE HEART OF THIS CRISIS
By Lucy Webb
PSHE at my secondary school was always taught by a random assortment of teachers, generally passing through. The message to us teenagers was that personal, social and health education was an unimportant subject we didn’t have to pay much attention to. Much later on, watching my older sister make a career of really good quality PHSE teaching and support young people away from destructive behaviour into self-confident and capable adulthood, I realised how let down we had been as children by a school that devalued young people in favour of a tick box exercise.
This week, I can’t help but draw parallels with the PM’s reshuffle and the treatment of the housing brief. We’ve now had 20 housing ministers in 25 years. Constant changes in policies and personalities have played a huge role in the housing crisis we now find ourselves in. And many of us across the UK – this housing specialist included – find ourselves increasingly wondering what political leaders think the job is actually meant to achieve.
Back in 2020, the Institute for Government tried to make the case for keeping ministers in post longer. It stated: ‘The length of time a UK secretary of state stays in the job is now closer to that of a football manager than a CEO in the private sector, and almost a year shorter than the equivalent in Germany. Longer tenures would provide continuity and give the government the best chance of delivering on its most ambitious promises such as ‘levelling up’ the country.” The job role chosen to illustrate the case was: Housing minister.
The problem is that it’s easy to keep swapping out one person for another when there’s little importance placed on the job or the person delivering it. Housing minister is not one of the great seats of state. For ambitious politicians it’s a job to step on and then keep going. Imagine if it was a great pillar of government. Imagine if every future PM wanted that job, to show they could answer the housing crisis for every voter who’s wondered how to keep a roof over their head. And imagine if that importance fed through to every other housing department, organisation and business. Where today is the excitement of delivering this fundamental service? Where is the understanding that this can totally change people’s lives?
Of course, all government jobs are political. If you’re a housing minister you’ll be working to a party manifesto. But being a minister matters. It’s a serious job. You can bring particular expertise and experience to a role to shape it and drive it and ultimately deliver it. Regardless of the colour of your politics, a housing minister needs to have their own vision, an idea that they can pull stakeholders together around, find common interest and creativity. Simply building new houses is not a vision. Home ownership is an old-fashioned framing for what, in the Margaret Thatcher years for example, essentially meant – dignity. So how about we go back to that wonderful, basic idea and reframe it again for the 21st century?
To do that we have to put people back in the middle of the housing conversation. I think the fact that housing is actually about people has got lost. We’ve been throwing numbers of houses built and targets of houses to be built for so long now that we’ve lost the context and the analysis. That 300,000 target is meaningless set against rising rents, pay freezes, inadequate social housing, the environmental and fuel cost of heating and lighting homes. And that’s before we start to explore how housing has become simply another asset class for some investors.
My secondary school with the bad PSHE teaching was in Margate, where for years I also watched local government make all the wrong decisions about how to invest in regeneration. I get out of bed every day now to work on good regeneration and housing as a key lever to release social good and economic growth. I’d love to see a housing minister who looked like they felt the same way.