Housing in the reshuffle: big shoes to fill, and an even bigger challenge

Yesterday’s reshuffle was a mixed bag for housing: the good, the bad and the unknown.

On the positive side of things, the housing portfolio was combined with planning and returned to Ministerial status – after being demoted to Undersecretary level last year.  This starts to reflect how important housing has become as an issue to voters and politicians alike.  Housing is now consistently a top 5 voter issue (YouGov) and for the first time in years it looks like it’s going to be a big issue at a general election.

It’s little wonder why.  On the same day as the reshuffle, new research by the IFS that showed home ownership among young people has halved in the last twenty years. And it’s only going to get worse on current trends. This is worrying not only those affected, but their parents too.

Less good was the loss of Nick Boles, a Planning Minister who had shared Shelter’s understanding of those affected by the housing crisis and some of the possible solutions for tackling it.  Boles has been one of the best allies those affected by the housing shortage have had in government in recent years. Though we didn’t always agree with him on everything – we’ve always said solutions need to go beyond planning reform alone – he grasped the urgency of the housing shortage and its consequence for the aspirations, security and wellbeing of an entire generation – and he made the argument in those terms. Often against pretty entrenched vested interests.  It’s a shame this fight seemed to take its toll.

We also lost Kris Hopkins from the housing brief, who stays within CLG but without the housing portfolio.  Again, we haven’t agreed with Mr Hopkins on everything, but it was under his stewardship that improving private renting has risen up the government’s agenda. He has initiated impressive reforms that we are optimistic will continue to flourish.  In particular, it has been during his time in office that the government has started to consider introducing a ban on ‘revenge eviction’ – where renters who report poor conditions to their landlord or local authority are served an eviction notice.   There is now a Private Member’s Bill on the cards that could change the law to introduce this ban: a change that would improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of private renters.

Which brings us to the unknown: Brandon Lewis, our new Minister of State for Housing and Planning.  He has already been working within the Department for Communities & Local Government, so he should be familiar with the issues.  But even so, he will need to get up to speed quickly.  He faces a housing shortage that is reaching crisis point – if nothing is done, half of all under 35s will be living in their childhood bedrooms by 2040 – and yet CLG’s own figures predict a drop off in the number of new houses built next year. We’re still not even building half of what we need.  Furthermore, he is responsible for oversight of a private rented sector in which a third of all homes fail to meet his Government’s own standards, and a third of all renters are on 6- or 12-month contracts.

Mr Lewis might also have to contend with increasingly disgruntled councils who will find themselves with less and less money available over the next few years to help those in dire need of housing support. Big problems lie ahead as the funding for Local Welfare Assistance Schemes is being scrapped next year and the future of Discretionary Housing Payment funding is worryingly unclear.

All in all, there can’t be many more urgent areas of policy facing the next 10 months of this Parliament.

It’s just as well for Mr Lewis, then, that help is at hand.  Shelter have worked with KPMG to provide the blueprint he needs to start building the homes we need.  We’ve also set out how he can make the private rented sector more stable and improve conditions for those living in it.  And we’ve even given some thought to how the welfare state can be reformed to help everyone in housing need.

The new Housing Minister has a lot on his plate, but also a huge opportunity to make progress on one of the biggest issues of concern facing voters, and get credit from them for doing so.  As ever we’re standing by to help.