Ministers in charge of housing tend to come and go without making much of a mark.
But is Sajid Javid different? The current Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has only been in the job for a little over a year and yet he appears to have shifted the government’s priorities in areas where very little ever shifts. Going by announcements made in the recent Budget, it seems like parliament might finally be catching on to the stark realities of Britain’s housing crisis.
A trip to Finland acted as a catalyst. Seeing how Housing First projects had improved the lot for homeless people there he came back, lobbied the Treasury to support similar schemes in the UK, which were announced by the Chancellor alongside initiatives including doubling council tax for owners of empty homes.
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The former business secretary may not have wanted the job – few ambitious ministers do – but Javid has been a surprisingly bold voice, urging the government to borrow to fund a more ambitious building programme. The Big Issue asked him about homelessness, building in the era of Brexit, and whether Labour will take advantage of the generational divide.
In spring you went to Finland to find out about the Housing First strategy [where homeless people are given a stable home]. What did you learn on your holiday?
I met ministers, charities and people who had previously been on the streets there, and I was convinced we should try it here. The first thing you do is to offer someone who is rough sleeping safe, secure, self-contained accommodation, give them a key and tell them, “This is your place.” Then you introduce specialist help for whatever their challenge might be – mental health, drug addiction. A dedicated advisor can help them navigate through the NHS, the Jobcentre and so on. One person I met had a key round his neck on a piece of string and said: “This means everything – I’ve never had this.”
How do you think it might work here?
I was delighted the Budget outlined funding for the pilots we’ll trial in West Midlands, Greater Manchester and Liverpool city region. There are still far too many rough sleepers on our streets, whether London or other big cities, and I wanted to make it a real ambition of mine to do everything I possibly can to tackle the homeless challenge.
Did the Budget do enough to allow more social housing to be built?
Social housing has a very important part to play in delivering the homes our country needs. I think it’s one of those areas where, done correctly, it can bring about savings for government in the long-term. It can be almost like an invest-to-save approach. With councils, the measure in the Budget increased their borrowing capacity. And with housing associations – that’s why we made the recent announcement about £2bn for more social homes.
What has to change in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire?
I want to make sure those people who are in social housing are being listened to. The terrible tragedy at Grenfell Tower – there’s a public inquiry and let’s see what that says. But it made it clear in my mind that you cannot have a situation where people feel they are not being listened to. I don’t have all the answers [but] we’re going to have a social housing green paper. I don’t want to look at just the number of homes, I want to look at the quality of homes.
So baby boomers understand the housing problems of young people?
One of the lessons from the last election was all politicians can do more to listen to younger voters. If you ask people under 40 about their big concerns, unaffordability of housing is top of the list. The average house price is eight times average earnings. The unaffordability of housing is the biggest barrier to social progress in our country today. Often the people most opposed to [new development] are the ones who have already got their nice secure home. We need to challenge it.
Is there a danger your party will lose votes to Labour on this issue?
In a democracy there is also a danger that if you don’t listen to people you can lose out. As long as we can keep showing people we absolutely understand the gravity of the situation and what needs to be done to fix this broken market, I think people will appreciate that. I think when people are reminded of Labour’s record, it will make them think twice. House-building fell to its lowest level since the 1920s under Labour.
Will Brexit harm the government’s ability to tackle the housing crisis?
Clearly Brexit is happening, and nothing can change that. In terms of housing, I think that as long as we keep following the strategy we’ve set out I’m confident we can meet that [target of building 300,000 homes a year]. I don’t think Brexit is going to have an impact on our ability to build the homes that we need. As long as we stay on top of the issues.
Do you intend to stick around as housing minister, or are you keen on a more senior cabinet role? Perhaps even a leadership bid?
I’d love to stay in this role as long as I can. It’s not in my gift – it’s the Prime Minister. It’s one of those jobs everyone can understand, now, the importance of – the mission to tackle housing challenges and homelessness. In the past with successive governments Sajid Javid turned to Finland when searching for a way to solve Britain’s housing crisis.