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.
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.”