Lucy Frazer’s departure from her post as minister for housing was announced by tweet. At eight weeks, her tenure was as brief as it was unmemorable. The UK’s carousel of housing ministers has become a grim joke for policy wonks. In 2020 we averaged a new one every year; in the last year that has increased to one every two months.
If only the speed of housing policy matched that with which its ministers move on. The ban on no-fault evictions announced in 2019 has yet to reach the floor of parliament. Conditions in social housing are under scrutiny, councils and housing associations are going bankrupt, nearly 100,000 households (including 120,00 children) are in temporary housing, mortgage-payers are contending with the highest interest rates since the 2008 crisis, and the flammable cladding crisis that began with the Grenfell Tower fire drags on.
The solution could be to create a Department for Housing. A dedicated ministry could provide the long-term focus, policy development and political weight to make a dent in the UK’s housing crisis. One of the problems created by the high turnover of housing ministers is that housing policy has tended to be led by the Treasury and No 10, including the disastrous Help to Buy programme, and driven by a different set of political, economic or financial imperatices. The ban on no-fault evictions was announced by Theresa May in April 2019 but floundered until it found a champion in Michael Gove, who has survived Rishi Sunak’s reshuffle to stay firmly at the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.
Having an empowered, high-profile politician leading a Department for Housing (supported by high-calibre civil servants) could provide the policy leadership and the accountability that has sadly been missing. Much of the ministerial churn has been due to politicians being offered better jobs elsewhere in government or being taken down in some non-housing-related scandal. No housing minister has been removed for failing to meet rock-bottom expectations for the job; few have had original or radical ideas.
Previous ministers and secretaries of state responsible for housing have had greater ambitions. Aneurin Bevan was responsible for both health and housing in Clement Attlee’s 1945 government. He envisioned an NHS-type system for housing, but was too busy creating the actual NHS to have the impact he desired. One of his successors, Harold MacMillan, the future Conservative prime minister, led a Ministry of Housing and Local Government and found that nothing focused him more than a good target, discarding the quality standards set by Bevin and focusing on building high and quick. By contrast, the last two decades have featured a conveyor belt of forgettable housing ministers as underlying structural problems have mounted.
Every other major UK crisis has its own ministry: the NHS has the Department for Health and Social Care; inflation has the Treasury; trains have the Department for Transport; and climate change has the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero. Isn’t it time we at least dignify housing with that?