There is still no dedicated Secretary of State for Housing sitting at the top table of British politics. Despite an ongoing housing crisis – and the focus intensified following the Grenfell blaze tragedy – the Cabinet announced by Theresa May after the General Election did not include a Secretary of State for Housing.
Instead, housing is one of the many areas of responsibility overseen by Sajid Javid, who retains his position as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. The position of Minister of State for Housing and Planning will remain one of the second tier positions.
PM is meeting with the Cabinet at Downing Street this morning. pic.twitter.com/s87OY42G1V
— UK Prime Minister (@Number10gov) June 13, 2017
And following his defeat in Croydon Central, Gavin Barwell will no longer be in the job. He has, instead, swiftly found new employment as Downing Street Chief of Staff.
Barwell’s replacement, Alok Sharma, will become the 15th Housing Minister in the UK since 1997 and the sixth since 2010. This lack of consistency has translated to a lack of focus.
Sharma has vowed that the hundreds of Grenfell survivors left destitute and homeless will be rehoused locally, but he is still not invited to sit at the heart of government to make any housing-related case.
The Big Issue asked No 10 why this was and we were told: “There is a minister of state who reports to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government [Sajid Javid, who sits in Cabinet], so matters of housing have representation in Cabinet. In terms of the business of government, there is a minister of state who focuses on that area. But that is a political question.”
If housing was made a cabinet position, a secretary of state might make a real difference
Former Housing Association chief executive Tom Murtha said: “I’ve seen almost 30 housing ministers in my career. Few stay for long and even fewer make a real impact.”
Speaking to 24Housing magazine, Murtha continued: “Barwell did no more and no less than most. Mainly because he had no real power. If housing was made a cabinet position, a secretary of state might make a real difference.
“With this position and proper funding we could see a future minister invest to build us out of the housing crisis.”
Following the horrific blaze, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called for properties in Kensington left empty by absentee landlords to be ‘requisitioned’ for use by families left with nothing. It was a suggestion echoed by senior members of his own party. Authorities estimate between 400 and 600 people lived in Grenfell.
Writing in The Big Issue ahead of the election, Prime Minister Theresa May said: “We will tackle housing issues which so often lead to homelessness.”
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was more explicit than his political rival about the need to address the housing crisis.
Speaking to Big Issue editor Paul McNamee, Corbyn said: “As an MP for an inner city area that has been dealing with housing issues all my life, I have a passion for dealing with the housing crisis.”
Asked for his number one priority, the Labour leader had previously told The Guardian: “There are obviously many priorities but the crisis of housing and setting in train a housing programme that would build more council housing at socially affordable rents and ensuring there is proper regulation of the private rental sector is a very high priority for me.”
This is reflected in the shadow cabinet. Even before the election, Corbyn promoted John Healey from Housing Minister to the position of Shadow Secretary of State for Housing, a full Shadow Cabinet position.
Tories claim housing is a priority but four days on still no housing minister. Labour would be setting up a new Housing Department by now.
— John Healey MP (@JohnHealey_MP) June 12, 2017
Before Sharma’s apointment, Healey tweeted: “Tories claim housing is a priority but four days on still no housing minister. Labour would be setting up a new Housing Department by now.”
Should Theresa May take a leaf out of her political opponents’ book on this vital issue? Only by having a dedicated Secretary of State for Housing in the cabinet, addressing the housing crisis full-time, can we be sure that warm pre-election words do not turn into more political hot air.