Opinion

Next! Rabb is 16th housing minister in 20 years

John Stewart
Written by John Stewart

Another reshuffle, another housing minister.  16 individuals have held the post of Minister of State for Housing and Planning since the election on Tony Blair’s government in 1997.

That’s an average tenure of just 15 months, ranging from the 28 months served by Labour’s Yvette Cooper from 2005-08, to just 7 months served by the most recently departed, Alok Sharma, appointed after last year’s General Election. 

The turnover has been more rapid under the Conservatives, getting through seven in seven and a half years, compared to Labour’s nine in 13 years. 

No-one expects junior ministers to hang around forever.

At the end of the day, most are ambitious, hoping for a step up to Cabinet, or at least a move to one of the ‘big’ departments.

Elections get in the way, governments change, and occasionally a minister’s own constituency will decide they no longer require their services a local MP, the fate of Gavin Barwell last year. 

Does it really matter that the governments get through housing minister faster than relegation-haunted Premier League football clubs replace their managers?

After all, there are civil servants sitting in the department, ensuring that the work of government goes on.

Surely it’s results that matter? 

And here we get to the crux.  It wouldn’t matter if housing policy was well directed, with clear priorities and action plans in place.

But who really believes the government is getting it right on housing, in general, and the private rented sector, in particular? 

Piecemeal approach

The failure to build enough new homes stretches back beyond the recent Conservative and Coalition governments, as does the piecemeal approach to regulation and the failure to adequately resource enforcement. 

If ministers are seen as disposable, then policy priorities may be set by unelected civil servants, rather than government with pet projects and persona prejudice coming to the fore.

Ministers are dependent on information and advice from civil servants, and it takes time to learn which they can rely on.

Even where government policy is clear, taking time to bed in a new minister is a convenient excuse for inaction.

And for those affected by policy decisions, or seeking to influence them, valuable time is spent going over old ground and revisiting old arguments. 

We can see the impact of the lack of continuity in the slew of recent legislation affecting the private rented sector.

Piecemeal legislation bolted on to inappropriate bills, rushed amendments and badly drafted regulations as ministers seek to make their mark, or be seen to take action before the next turn of the ministerial merry-go-round.

Minsters know they have little time to master their brief or make an impact. 

Stability

If housing really is a priority, and the government genuinely want to deliver across all tenures, and not just for home-owners, then surely a period of stability would not only be welcome, but is essential?

We need a strong, long-term minister given the time to listen, understand and earn the respect of stakeholders and who can create a coherent housing strategy where supply meets the needs of home-owners, aspirants and private and social tenants, regulation is proportionate and consistent and effective enforcement central, rather than optional. 

About the author

John Stewart

John Stewart

John is the Policy Manager for the RLA. He has over 20 years experience working in politics, as a successful election agent, MP’s assistant, local councillor and council leader, and is a former charity chief executive.

He oversees RLA policy work across all levels of government – central, devolved and local – working to ensure that landlords’ views are represented and officials, MPs, Assembly Members and local councillors have key information and evidence about the PRS before they take decisions.

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