Back to school: the new political season

September – chillier, windier, busier – is traditionally a time for a refresh. Having had the summer to reflect on how things have gone, our politicians traditionally use the return to Parliament to set out a rejuvenated course for the coming months. Summer 2012 was exceptional in every sense, and the Prime Minister used the moment to really shake up his ministerial teams.

It’s all change for housing policy. Our new team of ministers have been in post for a week: Mark Prisk MP with the housing brief, Nick Boles MP – a former director of the think tank Policy Exchange – on planning, and Don Foster MP – a long standing Liberal Democrat MP – will support across a number of policy areas.

The scale of the task facing our new ministers must look pretty huge. The housing crisis has rarely been out the news over recent months – whether it is people cutting back on food, delaying starting a family because of the cost of housing, or frustrated first time buyers who can’t save for a deposit and are stuck paying sky-high rents.

As voters’ disappointment and frustration at their housing situation mounts, the potential for house building to boost jobs and growth has been climbing up policy makers’ agendas. Number Ten and the Treasury made some big announcements last week – a clear signal that the highest echelons of government are taking our housing crisis seriously.

But when the buzz of the reshuffle and the growth announcements die down, the new ministers will need to ensure that housing maintains its high profile among senior government figures. They will need to show that any initiative to build more homes can maintain momentum and deliver lasting reform to our housing supply system as well as a short term boost, and that new homes are genuinely affordable and built to a high quality.

Beyond long term house building plans, Mr Prisk in particular will also need to show he has strong plans to help improve people’s housing situations in the short and medium term. Commentators are saying private renting is the ‘new political battleground’, so here are some policy suggestions that Mr Prisk may find politically astute to take forward:

  • Improve the stability of renting for families. Our research has found that one million families now rent, but are ten times more likely to move house compared to families with a mortgage. People worry about the uncertainty of renting. Shelter will shortly be publishing workable proposals for improving renting – and we will be encouraging the Minister to take these forward.
  • Continue the fight against rogue landlords. Grant Shapps made some movement in tackling poor enforcement of rogue landlords and last month published strong guidance for local councils in taking action. Mr Prisk will need to take a muscular stance with councils that are dragging their heels in enforcing against rogue landlords, and ensure that his department follows through on their actions.
  • Clamp down on unfair letting agent fees. Shelter’s Letting Away With It campaign has highlighted the obscene and unfair fees that some letting agents charge. When fees are this high it’s no wonder that many struggle to save for a deposit. The issue is not new to Mr Prisk, who in 2007 attempted to amend a bill to include greater regulation of lettings agents.
  • Ensure vulnerable households aren’t locked out of renting. Welfare reform proposals mean many people facing housing benefit cuts are going to have to move. But many are finding no landlords will take them. Mr Prisk needs to lead efforts across government to ensure that there is enough quality accommodation available to people in receipt of housing benefit.

If anything is certain, it’s that our new ministers will be busy with their new briefs. On a positive note, they have a real opportunity to help meet people’s aspirations in the long term, support jobs and growth, and start making private renting a better medium term option for people. We can only hope that the new team at CLG makes the most of the opportunity to put solving our housing crisis centre stage over the coming months.