Reshuffles always have what this site calls a Post-It Note Factor: that’s to say, the names of Ministers never quite end up matching the yellow pieces of paper with their names attached that legendarily are stuck up on a whiteboard. Some MPs won’t accept the jobs they’re offered; others suddenly quit; in one notorious case, a note fell off the board and no-one remembered to put it back on. In Theresa May’s first reshuffle, she seems originally to have planned to offer a new post to Stephen Crabb, so it follows that at least one member of the present Cabinet holds a post for which he was not originally intended. But there can be little doubt why Sajid Javid was moved from the Business Department to the Communities one. The explanation lies in a single word: housing.
Housebuilding hit a seven year high earlier this year, but a combination of family change, immigration levels, and occupancy habits mean that we are not building the number of homes we need. Roughly 195,000 houses were built last year. The Government’s target is 200,000. One unoffical estimate we have heard from Whitehall is that the number required to keep up with demand is actually 300,000 – the same figure that Macmillan met during the 1950s. But simply constructing more homes isn’t everything. The raw numbers tell one nothing about whether houses are being built where they are needed, what they are like to live in or look like from outside – or how many will be bought for ownership rather than rent.
ConservativeHome is preoccupied by the fall in home ownership during recent years. David Cameron fought the last election on security – in the broad rather than narrow sense of the word – and it is important to Theresa May. Home ownership brings a rootedness with it that renting can seldom match, which is why Tories from Eden through Thatcher to the present day have cherished the ideal of a property-owning democracy: it helps to give labour a stake in capital. The drop in ownership has also done the Party no good electorally. This is particularly evident in London. As Harry Phibbs reported recently on this site, the home ownership rate has now stabilised, but at 64 per cent it is well below the 71 per cent peak it reached during the Blair years.
Javid, with his Thatcherite attachments and instincts, was not the man for May’s new industrial strategy. And Greg Clark, who designed much of the present planning framework, was not the man if a major reworking proves necessary. So swapping the two makes a lot of sense. ConservativeHome understands that the Communities Secretary sees housing as his priority in the new department. This undoubtedly matches May’s thinking as well as his own instincts. In her leadership campaign launch speech in Birmingham, she complained that recent economic policy has “helped those on the property ladder at the expense of those who can’t afford to own their own home” and referenced “a growing divide between a more prosperous older generation and a struggling younger generation”.
The question is how Javid will go about trying to raise the home building rate. A Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastrucure Bill was announced in the Queen’s Speech. How radical should changes to the planning system be? And can brownfield really take the increase that most Conservative MPs believe desirable? Or will the Government have to look again at the Green Belt? Above all, perhaps, can it avoid a repetition of the building boom of 2001 to 2007,, in which home ownership and lending to first-time buyers fell, while house prices and buy-to-let mortgages shot up? He will have Gavin Barwell with him as Housing and Planning Minister, whose predecessor, Brandon Lewis, did a lot of good quietly: as a former council leader, he understood the way in which local government ticks.
The Planning Minister before him, Nick Boles, played a pioneering role in helping to change the national conversation about the need for new homes. It is better understood now as a fundamental of intergenerational justice than it was when the Coalition began in 2010. But Boles played a political price for the upfront way in which he championed the cause of more housebuilding. And a problem endures: most older people understand that, if their children are to have the ownership opportunity that they did, the building of more homes is part of the solution. But very few are queueing up to see these built in their own neighbourhoods – understandably enough. And unlike Lewis and Eric Pickles, under whom the former originally served, Javid has no local government experience. (Clark, too, is a former councillor.)
The new Communities Secretary thus faces a daunting challenge – made no easier, among Leave-backing Party members, by his recent support for Remain. But he is a breath of fresh air in the department. A touch of can-do thinking will do it no harm on housing, and Javid is just the man to provide it. Alex Morton has argued on this site recently that “the housing sector (and many academics/left wing charities) are largely a series of vested interests focused on more money and hidden subsidy (e.g. cheap public land) for their favoured type of housing.” He stresses fixing a broken system. We have made the case in the ConservativeHome Manifesto for government enabling councils, housing associations and other registered social landlords to build new homes for sale directly.