Why does no one stay on as housing minister?

Esther McVey, the fifth housing minister since 2017, left her post last week after being sacked in the reshuffle.

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“I’m very sorry to be relieved of my duties as Housing Minister” – with this sentiment and the standard thanks to the Prime Minister, Esther McVey, the fifth housing minister since 2017 left her post after being sacked in last week’s reshuffle.

McVey, replaced by Christopher Pincher, was the ninth housing minister since the 2010 election, and 18th since Labour’s 1997 landslide election victory. The only other post to have a comparable amount of changes over the same period was Cabinet Office Minister. In housing terms, being housing minister has about the same level of security as being a private renter.

Despite its role in the 2008 financial crisis, housing was not a significant issue in the 2010 election. But by 2015, Labour was committed to a weak form of rent control, the Greens were promising to build hundreds of thousands of council homes, and even the Conservatives were making noises about banning lettings agency fees (which they later did). We have now had three elections where housing policy has been a key election issue for voters. It was more important than education in 2015, benefits in 2017, and both in 2019. Why is minister turnover so high?

When McVey was appointed just five months ago, The Big Issue said she was the latest in a “long and undistinguished line” of ministers. The magazine noted that current need for housing was nowhere near being met – as has been the case for over a decade. A year earlier, at the end of Dominic Raab’s six-month stint Pete App from Inside Housing reviewed the achievements of the seven ministers since the 2010 election. These ranged from moments of singular incompetence under Raab, to Gavin Barwell’s shift to a multi-tenure approach following years of single-minded focus on home ownership, to Alok Sharma – who was praised for listening to tenants over the Social Housing Green Paper, but was moved on before he could do anything about it.

Of the housing ministers since 2010, six were moved on elsewhere in government, two were sacked and one (Gavin Barwell) lost his seat at the 2017 general election. In practice, this means most housing policy has been led by the Treasury and Number 10 rather than by housing ministers. The Cameron government’s flagship policy, Help to Buy, was announced by then chancellor George Osborne. His successor Philip Hammond was the one to announce the ban on lettings agency fees, and former prime minister Theresa May herself announced plans to remove the borrowing cap on councils wanting to build new homes. Toby Lloyd, a former head of policy at homeless charity Shelter and later advisor on housing to No 10, said in an interview with Inside Housing that Hammond had “an awfully strong personal interest in housing.”

But there were exceptions. In 2019, former secretary of state for housing, communities and local government James Brokenshire was allowed to announce the May government’s intention to scrap no-fault evictions in private renting, something that is yet to happen.

Despite having little background in housing, McVey’s successor does have a concerning voting history on the subject, as noted by Vicky Spratt in the i newspaper. He has supported welfare reforms that have exacerbated the housing crisis, the end of secure tenancies and raising rents for higher earners in council homes. This policy effectively further “residualises” council housing by making it a floor rather than a ladder out of poverty.

On the agenda is the government’s pledge to abolish “no fault” evictions in private rented housing, the government’s much-criticised First Homes programme that is unaffordable to 96 per cent of average earners, a homelessness crisis, ongoing issues with flammable and combustable cladding on hundreds of thousands of high-rise homes, and the future recommendations coming out of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry.  It’s a challenging to do list. The question is how long we can expect Christopher Pincher to be around to cross anything off.

Samir Jeraj is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman

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