Alok Sharma: Our man in DWP?

When Alok Sharma accepted the job of housing minister in the summer, he liked to joke that the average life cycle of a housing minister was about ten months.

Last week he was shuffled out of the role without quite reaching that modest milestone, to be replaced with Dominic Raab.

There’s a debate to be had about whether the constant reshuffling of housing ministers is consistent with a government commitment to address the housing crisis. Although it’s worth noting that his boss, Sajid Javid, remains in charge of the rebranded Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG).

Response to Grenfell

Sharma’s experience as housing minister was radically different to most, beginning with the devastating Grenfell Tower fire. Officials said the impact this had on him could not be underestimated. The fire – and more specifically, the limited scope for the official inquiry – prompted Sharma to launch an England-wide tour to hear from social housing tenants. This is a process which was still underway at the time of the reshuffle.

The conversations were building towards a green paper on social housing. Inevitably many will fear that the sessions were in vain, although Dominic Raab will hopefully be asking his officials for a rundown of the feedback.

But in the spirit of New Year optimism, there is a reason to be cheerful about Sharma’s shuffle over to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). Observers at the sessions said a key issue for tenants was Universal Credit and the wider benefit system, not fire safety or even repairs.  The many cuts and changes have left renters struggling to pay rents and dealing with unreliable income.

Taking on Universal Credit

As a minister of state at the DWP, Sharma has been handed responsibility for Universal Credit. He now has far more power than previous housing ministers to actually address tenants’ concerns. Inadvertently, the carousal of housing ministers may have paved the way for previously unseen levels of joint working between the DWP and the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG).

It has always been a source of frustration that while housing benefit is a major tool to prevent homelessness and sustain people in good housing, it’s the DWP and not DCLG that holds the purse strings. DCLG ministers are held to account for rising homelessness, and yet the National Audit Office points to Local Housing Allowance (LHA) cuts as a likely driver of recent increases.

The aborted attempt to apply LHA rates to social housing was a further case in point of how this dysfunction manifests itself. The DWP saw the move as a logical way to constrain costs, without understanding how the supported housing sector works – or the risks the shift would have created.

Alok Sharma has the opportunity to be more than just a pub quiz answer (what, only me?) and take the experiences of renters struggling with housing benefit to the heart of DWP policy making. Combined with a cross-government focus on reducing homelessness, the opportunity is at hand to put the housing back into housing benefit.