For all the potential worrisome consequences of the pro-Leave ‘do or die’ Cabinet marshalled by new PM Boris Johnson in one clean sweep, one of the earliest negative effects has been the surprise sacking of the man in charge of housing, James Brokenshire.
Brokenshire, compared with some of his predecessors, was a popular and effective Secretary of State by many accounts.
He’s been in the job for just over a year, but his achievements include acting swiftly to tackle aspects of the post-Grenfell agenda, including accepting the Hackitt Report findings including looking at regulations change, introducing a ban on combustible cladding over 18 metres, and starting a programme of replacing Aluminium Composite Material cladding on existing blocks.
Unfortunately slow progress on that replacement, and the recent fire at a new Barking housing development has prompted criticisms that the Government has not done enough to ensure safety for residents.
Finally, whether the industry approves or not, his pledge to stop any new homes being sold for freehold saw a lot of support across the country.
Why can’t the Ministry put its weight behind a national offsite programme which could bring in SMEs as well as the heavyweights who have the clout to invest?
Brokenshire’s replacement Robert Jenrick is, without wanting to sound harsh, a beginner.
The former Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury is 37, and was the youngest Minister in Theresa May’s Government.
A qualified solicitor, his record doesn’t appear to show a raft of knowledge on the housing sector, but no doubt he is currently doing a lot of reading.
Jenrick’s got a bit of form on protecting ancient buildings, and owning a few properties himself, but whether that will help on the social housing agenda, we’ll have to see.
Esther McVey – high profile but not quite a household name in the housing world – was given the job of Housing Minister replacing Kim Malthouse (he of the as yet unsuccessful Leave ruse of the ‘Malthouse Compromise).
She has a background in construction, but her family’s firm specialised in demolition rather than building, and she’s not exactly endeared herself with voters in the last few years at the DWP.
McVey’s also the tenth housing minister in 10 years. Given the revolving door policy that seems to work in this department, who knows how long she’ll last?
Our new PM
Boris isn’t going to be prioritising housing, he will talk about it but there’s really only one problem which will be occupying his every waking hour, despite his talk of ‘levelling up’ society across a range of policy areas.
Dealing with the housing crisis will be left to MCHLG, and the new man Jenrick has a massive list of priorities facing him, nearly as complex as Brexit, but let’s hope not as insoluble.
He needs to edit the list of tasks down to the ‘must-do’s’ to ensure that progress is made.
As housebuilding is lagging behind on the 300,000 homes per year target – currently we’re at about 222,000 but still averaging 177,000 a year over the past 10 years.
Skills and material shortages?
Post-Brexit (particularly if there’s a no deal) I predict the biggest immediate concern is going to be getting the materials on to sites, in the extended period of chaos that could ensue.
Jenrick needs to ensure that no deal planning will include special measures for ensuring that construction sites don’t grind to a halt. How you do that is harder to work out.
The industry also needs help in terms of how it will be able to mitigate further increases in materials costs from a weakening pound, rather than just passing them on to customers.
The skills shortage is an ongoing problem which isn’t going to be eased by Brexit, but this has simply become a fact of life in housebuilding.
I think that many people may be looking at career shifts into housebuilding if the predicted job losses occur from Brexit. This could go some way to filling the gaps, although training will be an issue.
Any big ideas?
In terms of big ideas, freeing up councils to borrow more doesn’t seem to have caused the waves of public sector housebuilding some may have hoped for.
If the new housing secretary genuinely wants to make his mark, he could announce a centrally-run public sector housebuilding programme, which would turn away from the optimistic localism agenda in recognition of just how fundamental housebuilding is to our nation, economically and socially.
It would require an unfashionable interventionist approach, but it’s something that we need if we are to see the numbers needed quickly.
Small and Medium Enterprises are still languishing, with far more precarious margins than the big volume housebuilders.
Jenrick should take the reins of a concerted programme to provide more than just small pockets of funding, and actually work to give SMEs a head start in building the bigger developments which will help sustain them.
The development of realistic offsite housing solutions seems to still be largely left to industry to innovate and promulgate.
Why can’t the Ministry put its weight behind a national offsite programme which could bring in SMEs as well as the heavyweights who are already innovating and have the clout to invest?
Complete log jam
Last but probably most critical to day-to-day development, planning departments have been decimated, and the resulting log-jam of schemes is taking its toll on build-out rates.
The Ministry simply needs to pump money into local departments to recruit the staff needed to make these developments happen, all within the necessary green belt provisions of course.
Crisis what crisis?
The industry is faced with another immediate crisis, one of continuity, where bodies who have been lobbying hard on important issues like the Federation of Master Builders (who shout particularly loudly for SMEs), now have to start from scratch with a whole new group of people at the top.
When Brexit is sucking the life out of everything, the task of fighting for the industry (despite the fact construction makes up 7 per cent of GDP) is made even harder.
PM Johnson has already set out a long list of ambitious promises to fulfil in a short space of time. A cynic might say he has already set himself up to fail.
However, including Brexit, it’s all an unknown quantity – plus ca change, as they say in that country across the Channel, or as Boris himself might.
And the man himself, and his achievements so far, remain something of an enigma.
Was his attempted Heatherwick-designed garden bridge a vanity project or a heroic failure? Is he a liar or a bumbling optimist?
In our regrettably polarised times, it increasingly depends on who you ask.
What we do know is we have novices in charge of the housebuilding sector, who will need all the advice and strong encouragement the industry can muster.