Hot Potato

 

Brandon Lewis: the new face of housing...but for how long?

Brandon Lewis: the new face of housing and planning…but for how long?

The Story

Imagine for a moment, if you will, that the word potato means housing minister.

No, seriously.

Now recall the classic children’s rhyme: One Potato, Two Potato, Three Potato…Four!

The latest cabinet reshuffle sees us with another new housing minister – the fourth in as many years.

No, seriously.

The reaction from the sector to this frequent changing-of-the-housing-guard has, superficially at least, been anything but serious – allusions to merry-go-rounds, revolving doors, and frequently-shuffled poker decks (complete, presumably, with jokers…) abound. But beyond the light-hearted commentary there are serious concerns being expressed about not just what this latest change in minister means for the sector, but what the seemingly ephemeral post of housing minister means for UK housing in general.

Now that it’s been tossed again, let’s try and get a hold of this political potato. Careful though – it’s hot.

One Potato, Two Potato, Three Potato…Four!

The potato began cooking with Grant Shapps when the current coalition was formed in 2010. Shapps cooked for just over two years as Minister of State for Housing – a retrospectively impressive term of office in light of recent, rapid changes – and despite having his skin frequently pricked by commentators, particularly over the dismantling of the TSA, it was, all things considered, an unremarkable stay in the oven.

In 2012 Shapps was done…with housing that is, promoted to Chairman of the Conservative party. The potato was now tossed to Mark Prisk, who I confess I had completely forgotten about until reading Jon Land’s commentary on the reshuffle. The Prisk potato was placed in a mini-oven compared to Shapps’ aga, serving just a year as Minister of State for Housing and Local Government; an impressive title in contrast to his rather pedestrian tenure.

Kris Hopkins was next to be tossed the potato. Now we move from mini-oven to microwave – Hopkins was in post for just ten months – and like any potato cooked in a microwave rather than a ‘proper’ oven Hopkin’s stint as a mere parliamentary undersecretary for housing was disappointing: he did nothing of note (aside from making some comments about benefit claimants and disabled housing tenants which, in hindsight, he probably wishes he hadn’t…) and never expressed any degree of passion for the role. His performance at #Housing2014 was similarly lacklustre, as I noted in my review of the event via Twitter.

With Hopkin’s gone, the housing potato has now been tossed to Brandon Lewis, Conservative MP for Great Yarmouth and previous under-secretary of state in the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), who now becomes the Housing and Planning Minister.

Holding onto the position of housing minister is, it seems, as difficult as our titular hot potato.

Better the Devil You Don’t Know?

We’ve reached the stage where it’s harder in life NOT to be housing minister. Some don’t even bother putting it on their CVs. – Max Salsbury, 24Dash.com

The current government are not alone in handling their potatoes lightly – as Max Salsbury notes, the previous Labour government tossed their potato eight times in thirteen years. (To clarify, Max didn’t use a potato analogy as I am. To clarify further, he didn’t use a potato analogy at all.)

Incidentally, I’m officially claiming credit for the phrase ‘toss the potato’ should it become accepted as a new idiom meaning ‘a change in bearer of a title or post, particularly posts that change frequently’.

Back on topic, the point I’m trying to make is that frequent changes in housing minister is not a new development, but frequent new developments in housing minister don’t give any incumbent minister a chance to do…well, very much at all.

The longest time position of housing minister has been held in this coalition is by Shapps at two years, with Hopkins only holding the potato for ten months; Michael Gove, meanwhile, has had four years as Education Secretary before being removed from the position in the latest reshuffle.

On one hand, Gove has had sufficient time to implement policies, become a recognised figurehead of the government (I’d warrant the average voter will recognise Gove a lot more readily than Prisk, Hopkins, or Lewis), and affect impactful change, regardless of what you may think of that change…

…and there lies the other edge of the blade. Gove is recognisable, but often in a bad way. His policies and speeches have drawn ire, frustration, and outright condemnation from many, not least the teachers his office supposedly represented. Prisk may have slipped silently under the radar, and Hopkins has made a couple of public gaffes, but no housing minister has invoked the kind of reaction that Gove did: critical or otherwise, it was always emphatically positive.

Which is preferable: bland ministers in short-term posts who do little of either benefit or harm, or controversial ministers in long-term posts who are capable of instigating great change…and great big mistakes too?

Fail to Plan Housing, Plan to Fail Housing

It’s not all facetious comments and bad potato-puns, though. The new position does see the housing and planning portfolios joined together for the first time since 2009. This should be a good thing, as planning legislation can now hopefully be coordinated with that of housing to yield mutually beneficial results. Further, when upwards of 300,000 new homes are required each year to meet demand, it will be good to have a position in government to try and steer how new developments can be delivered across the country, and not simply leave the difficult decision making to local authorities – planning and public policy commentator Tessa Coombes has written previously about the need for ‘planning champions’ to avoid the unattractive private-sector led developments of the 1980s.

The change from Hopkins’ undersecretary role to that of Lewis’ ministerial position is welcome too. This at least hints that housing is being regarded with more gravitas by the government; as well it should – a recent polling by Ipsos Mori suggests housing is of growing importance to British voters with 14% ranking it their biggest concern in May 2014, up from 9% at the beginning of 2013. The role is still not a Cabinet position, though, and that is especially painful for the housing sector to bear at a time when welfare reform is stretching associations and local authorities to breaking point, and when – as highlighted by the SHOUT campaign – there is an urgent need to push for the construction of new social housing.

Without a Cabinet position to represent and fight for the requirements of UK housing, the sector will always face an uphill battle to make its voice heard and to make the radical changes necessary to have any hope of averting the current ‘housing crisis’.

Conclusion

Q. How many housing ministers does it take to change a light bulb?

A. None – a light bulb lasts longer!

– James Tickell (@jamestickell), via Twitter

If it sounds like the housing sector, with its jokes and jibes, is taking the role of housing minister less than seriously it is only because the government is doing the same. Combining the housing brief with that of planning is a step in the right direction, but the promotion of the role back to that of minister still falls short of the Cabinet position housing desperately needs. The minister of housing changes too frequently – heck, the title and rank of the minister of housing changes too frequently – for anyone to realistically expect help from central government, or even take the post seriously. Without wishing to sound paranoid, I do wonder whether there is conspiracy to protect policies such as Right-To-Buy, the ‘bedroom tax’, etc. by ensuring that there is no spokesperson at the head of housing for sufficient time (or of sufficient capability…) to challenge them.

Is it worth the sector lobbying Brandon Lewis given that, following next year’s general election, he may only be in position for little more than eight months? Given the history we have explored, will it be that long before we see five potato, six potato, seven potato…more?

If we don’t start letting our potatoes bake properly, there is a danger we won’t just toss the potato around – we’ll toss it away. And housing needs a strong, capable, and stable potato – I mean housing minister – now more than ever.

References

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