Hello, Goodbye, Hello, Goodbye

Andrew Arden QC comments on the most recent ministerial reshuffle.

In his evidence to the House of Commons, Communities and Local Government Select Committee Inquiry into the Private Rented Sector, Martin Partington, the former Law Commissioner who was in charge of its programme of housing law reform, commented that

Housing ministers came and went like water down the drain – that might be slightly unfair, but they did come and go with extraordinary regularity … every eight or nine months. (4 February 2013)

This was particularly marked under the last government when, between June 2001 and June 2009, there were no less than seven Ministers of Housing. The coalition government seems determined to follow in its predecessor’s footsteps: after a period of more than two years under Grant Shapps, Mark Prisk lasted little more than a year, and – compounding the failure to take housing policy seriously in its own right – he has now been replaced by an Under-Secretary of State, formally downgrading the role of housing spokesman (to say ‘supremo’ would be absurd in the circumstances) as well as ensuring that it stays on the nursery slopes.

Labour remains consistent even in opposition, matching the government’s three with no less than four housing spokesmen in the life of this Parliament.

Small wonder housing is in a state of constant crisis when no one stays around long-enough to develop a long-term, sustainable housing strategy that governs supply and demand, housing conditions, owner-occupation and rented accommodation, private and social rented sectors or – in some ways above all – homelessness. Is it really too much to suggest that this critical area of basic need merits attention from someone who keeps the job long enough both to understand the issues and to develop solutions that stick? How can housing policy ever escape its position as a political football if it lacks a committed champion within either government or opposition?

It’s a serious point. Insufficient housing – whether to buy or rent – may be the menu special of the day (and it is invariably one of those on offer), but it directly links to housing conditions, security of tenure in private and social rented sectors and homelessness. An holistic housing policy has been wanting … well, forever; we will get no nearer to it until someone with a political voice gets stuck into it for a serious period of time.

The truth is probably that politicians do not want this, for if a housing policy which had integrity, consistency and effectiveness were ever achieved, it would be difficult to change it (or, at any rate, any of its core constituents) otherwise than on a basis which was equally housing-based, which would in turn deprive politicians of the opportunity to hang short-term gains on such a vintage – but unoccupied – coat-hook, ie  it’s on stand-by as a subject with which to grab for headlines, eg for example, immigration.

I am arguing for an approach to housing not unlike that which has been taken to the NHS or education or even social security: true, these areas are now under attack but they retain the notion that they concern distinct and discrete areas of activity which require equally distinct and discrete policies of their own.

Is it so much to ask for housing?

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