I gawped on Monday evening when it sunk in that the reshuffle had left Communities and Local Government with no fewer four Under-Secretaries of State in the Commons – but no Minister of State there. This isn’t some trivial piece of Whitehall arcana, but a suggestive development with political implications. For out went the department’s Commons Minister of State, Mark Prisk, and in came a new Under-Secretary, Kris Hopkins, to take on his portfolio – housing.
“I intend no disrespect to [Hopkins],” I wrote, “by pointing out that the interest groups and others will inevitably see the loss of a Minister of State as a loss of status for housing itself. It is certainly an odd signal to send at a time when housing is a crucial political battleground, when Ed Miliband is fighting for its possession, and the Government is making such a push with Help to Buy.”
Today, Isabel Hardman takes up the theme in the Daily Telegraph. Hopkins, she points out, “has become the third Conservative housing minister in as many years…the job itself has been downgraded in status”. Prisk “was a quieter and more serious chap than his pugnacious predecessor, Grant Shapps…this new housing minister just wanted to get enough homes built”. Dismissing him, she implies, was therefore a mistake.
She goes on to point out that the number of homes completed in England in 2012/13 was the lowest since records began, before reminding her readers that Tory election victories and ambitious housing policies have tended to go together. Harold Macmillan built 300,000 houses a year. Margaret Thatcher introduced the mass sale of council houses (which once again is sharply on the increase).
Nick Faith of Policy Exchange suggested on Monday that the delay in announcing a new Housing Minister – news of Hopkins’s appointment came quite late in the day – could mean that Housing and Planning were being rolled together into one brief. This would have made sense: it would be easier for a senior Minister to drive through the more rapid disposal of Government-owned land, for example, than it will be for two more junior ones (Hopkins and Nick Boles) with overlapping responsibilities.
The Telegraph reported in August that the average second home buyer is now 42, and average first home buyer 28. It is a breach of social justice that the ownership of property is now so disproportionately vested in older people. There can be no more sure long-term solution to the Conservatives’ electoral disadvantage compared to Labour than for them to “focus like a laser beam” on the provision of homes, jobs and savings for all. We will return to the theme next week.