It has become a well-worn joke within the property industry that the UK endures a fast-revolving door of government housing ministers.
This goes back a long way. In 1997 when new housing minister Lord Rooker was announced, John Perry, director of policy at the Chartered Institute of Housing, said: “This is the fourth housing minister since Labour came to power in 1997. We badly need continuity”. But no one in the corridors of power listened.
Over the past 20 years the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, as it is currently named, has welcomed and then waved goodbye to 18 ministers, which is a run rate of 1.1 years per minister.
The shortest serving minister in recent times has been Dominic Raab at just seven months, while the longest-serving have included Yvette Cooper, Grant Shapps and Brandon Lewis, who all completed two years or more.
It is difficult to pinpoint all the reasons why so many ministers serve for such a short time, but most commentators point to several key drivers.
Firstly, housing is seen as a secondary area of importance in government compared to say public finances or foreign policy and therefore an ideal place for wannabe Cabinet ministers to hone their political and policy management skills before higher office beckons.
This is certainly true of current housing minister Esther McVey who has been slowly grinding her way up the political ladder including stints working in disability, work and pensions, employment and as a deputy chief whip.
Secondly, housing ministers hold very little power. Most housing policy is implemented locally or regionally, and housing until recently has not been prioritised and instead has had to fight for influence and funding alongside other priorities.
And once greenhorn ministers are settled into their plush ministerial seats, it’s soon obvious to them that housing is a difficult nut to crack. It covers a huge range of topics including housing associations, homelessness, social housing, estate agents, builders, developers, planning, tenants, landlords, finance, money laundering and immigration.
All are governed by separate legislation and ministers often face a bewildering array of challenges. It’s not surprising that novices to the sector like McVey often struggle to sound convincing when it’s a subject most industry veterans struggle to grasp fully.
Here is The Negotiator’s list of housing ministers over the past 25 years and some of the achievements (and disasters) linked to their times in office.
Esther McVey – July 2019 to present
McVey is the first former TV presenter to hold the housing brief. But her media experience hasn’t helped that much; you can’t blag housing. She was caught out recently when she said the UK housing industry is getting more ‘high tech’ and that more architects are using 3D design. This attracted much derision; they’ve been using tech to design homes for decades. But apart from that blooper (and hinting that the government will back longer minimum tenancy length), she’s kept quiet.
Kit Malthouse July 2018 to July 2019 – 12 months
Not that much to report on the policy front, except some familiar claims that the Tories were building more homes than Labour and that Help to Buy was proving popular. He also launched an initiative to build 10,000 new homes on government brownfield sites. But he refused to regulate Airbnb.
Dominic Raab January 2018 to July 2018 – 7 months
Raab wasn’t so much missed by the property industry when he quit after seven months, as hardly noticed. His tenure in office was as weak as his interest in housing – he hardly engaged and for many people it was obvious the post was a holding position while greater things beckoned. In his case, that was the job of Brexit secretary, and later Foreign Office minister.
Alok Sharma June 2017 to January 2018 – 19 months
Sharma had grand plans to drive forward his new department and engaged with the hot topics of housing. But the day after his appointment the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy played out during which 72 people lost their lives. He spent almost all of his time and energy dealing with the fallout, but did manage to find time to announce a rogue landlord crackdown.
Gavin Barwell July 2016 to June 2017 – 11 months
Barwell was one of the more thoughtful Tory housing ministers and his most significant contribution to the debate was to prepare the Housing White Paper published on 7th June 2017, although several industry commentators criticised it for being ‘toothless‘. It paved the way for much of the government’s current thinking on housing including construction, planning, affordable housing, longer tenancies and embracing the build to rent sector.
Brandon Lewis July 2014 to July 2016 – 24 months
Lewis is best known for introducing the Housing and Planning Act 2016 which was the Cameron government’s attempt to provide more starter homes, encourage self-building, tackle rogue landlords and letting agents (including introducing banning orders), establishing a database of rogue landlords and agents and bringing in electrical safety standards for rented properties.
Kris Hopkins – October 2013 to July 2014 – 9 months
Hopkins was another short-term holder of the housing brief most famous for dismissing Labour’s attempt to bring in a lettings fee ban as a ‘short term gimmick’, a policy that the Conservative party eventually embraced and turned into law.
Mark Prisk September 2012 to October 2013 – 13 months
Prisk was one of the more knowledgeable housing ministers and took the time to grasp his ministerial brief. After he stepped down in 2013, he went on to join the MHCLG’s parliamentary scrutiny Select Committee where he remains today. Recently, he showed his metal when the committee looked at how the government is tackling rogue landlords and whether select licensing is really working.
Grant Shapps May 2010 to September 2012 – 28 months
Shapps made little impact on the private rented and sales market and was better known for his controversial attempts at deregulating the social housing sector.
John Healey – June 2009 to May 2010 – 23 months
Healey was the final housing minister of the Labour era and, when the Brown government was voted out, he then became shadow housing spokesperson, a role he still holds. When in government he got into hot water for suggesting home ownership wasn’t the housing nirvana it’s often cracked up to be.
Margaret Beckett – October 2008 to June 2009 – 8 months
Beckett was keen to get Britain building and interviews given by her at the time sound very similar in content to today’s ministers. But building more homes both for renting and owning wasn’t high on the political agenda; the country’s finances and economy was reeling from the global financial crisis.
Caroline Flint – January 2008 to October 2008 – 9 months
Flint’s achievements included a £1 billion housing package, new shared ownership and shared equity schemes to help first time buyers, and a mortgage rescue scheme.
Yvette Cooper – May 2005 to January 2008 – 32 months
Cooper was a bright young thing within the Labour party when she got the housing brief and was responsible for trying to introduce the controversial and ultimately failed Home Information Packs (HIPs) scheme.
While housing minister she also made a bid to become Labour leader, which was not successful. She also spearheaded a campaign to provide more affordable homes.
Keith Hill – June 2003 to May 2005 – 23 months
Hill had different housing issues to deal with than today’s ‘get Britain building’ politicians. His time was spent sorting out squabbling housing associations, stopping planning authorities from being too keen to reject planning applications and trying to get rid of Gummer’s Law, which exempted the builders of large country mansions from the planning process.
Jeff Rooker – May 2002 to June 2003 – 11 months
When Rooker got the housing job there was widespread surprise because it was expected that he would be sacked after criticising the then Chancellor’s most recent budget. But at least he had some experience of the brief, having been Labour’s shadow housing spokesperson during the early years of the Thatcher government. He was best known for changing the conditions under which council tenants bought their own homes, amid concerns that much of the stock was ending up in the hands of developers and landlords.
Charlie Falconer – June 2001 to May 2002 – 11 months
Falconer was at the time a close friend of then Prime Minister Tony Blair and during his short time at housing went at it with some vigour. This included plans to build modular homes for nurses and other key workers, introducing the concept of 30% affordable homes within commercial housing developments and introducing plans to evict council tenants for anti-social behaviour.
Nick Raynsford – July 1999 to June 2001 23 months
Raynsford remains one of the most respected housing ministers, partly because he came to the job with plenty of experiencing including working as a housing consultant who had links to affordable housing, architecture, developers, engineering, housing quality and planning. Last year he published the Raynsford Review, a much respected plan to overhaul the UK planning system. He also engaged with the industry on the ‘clawback’ system and landlords’ worries that gaining access to unpaid rent via the benefits system was proving difficult.
Hilary Armstrong – May 1997 to July 1999 – 26 months
Armstrong was most interested in, and active within, the social housing sector as it is known today, or council housing at it was referred to then. She sponsored a key piece of legislation that set out how councils could refer homeless people to other local authorities. She also helped introduce the concept of Tenant’s Choice, whereby councils were required to involve their tenants in decisions about their homes and the local area.