Alok Sharma was appointed housing minister on 14 June 2017, the same day a fire ripped through Grenfell Tower in west London. The fire claimed 72 lives; the cladding on the tower ignited and sent flames soaring up the outside of the building.
Since then, the UK has had six housing ministers and four secretaries of state for the department then known as housing, communities and local government (now renamed “levelling up, housing and communities”). Although the cladding was identified early as the main reason the Grenfell fire spread, the task of persuading those responsible for installing flammable cladding on hundreds of similar buildings to replace it has been spectacularly mishandled, leading to thousands of people being forced either to live in homes that are unsafe (and unsellable), or stump up the cash to replace the cladding themselves.
Until now, that is. In February, the housing secretary, Michael Gove, gave builders an ultimatum: pay for your cladding mistakes, or face my wrath. Yesterday two more housebuilders, Barratt Developments and Redrow, committed to spend another £564m between them to tackle unsafe cladding and other fire safety issues, on top of the £115m they had already set aside. Eight housebuilders have now signed up to Gove’s building safety pledge, which was outlined in January. Whisper it – but Gove, who has only been in his role for seven months, seems rather good at this.
Gove is a man who is used to being unpopular: in his role as education secretary he described the forces ranged against his reforms as “the blob”, while an Opinium poll at the end of December suggested that if Gove was Tory leader it would hand Labour an 18-point lead, and YouGov indicates that he is unpopular with 50 per cent of the population. But perhaps a thick skin is what’s needed in this role; his hard-line tactics have resulted in bitter complaints. The Times suggests housebuilders are deeply unimpressed. “He is understood to have yet to meet any of the bosses face-to-face,” the newspaper reported, adding that in January he left a virtual round-table with chief executives after 15 minutes. “Realistically, there is no choice but to sign [up to the pledge],” grumbled the chief executive of one housebuilder.
Gove is hardly courting the builders’ approval. At a meeting of the Conservative Environment Network last week, he confided he was “not particularly popular with developers at the moment”. At that event he also accused builders of being a “cartel” who “operate in a particular way, and there are all sorts of unhappy consequences”. Those are not the words of a man looking to ingratiate himself with the sector.
But it is also worth pointing out that not everyone is upset. Nigel Wilson, the chief executive of Legal & General (L&G), told me he had had “more engagement with Michael than all the rest of the housing ministers put together”. L&G builds hundreds of homes a year, many of which are affordable. “He’s been to visit a lot of our sites,” said Wilson. “He gets it.”
Housebuilding is a sector that often gets what it wants, when it wants it, lest it stop building houses. Whatever your view of Gove, it is hard to argue with results – but the big test of his resolve will be his staying power. At this point in proceedings, the department cannot afford for the door to revolve again.