If I were Christopher Pincher, the UK’s latest housing minister, I wouldn’t bother calling in the decorators to kit out my office.
Pincher is the tenth minister in as many years tasked with looking after the nation’s housing stock, meaning the role has about as much shelf-life as a loaf of bread. While that might sound a touch facetious, there is a serious point that underpins it.
The sacking of Esther McVey, Pincher’s predecessor, is another classic example of Government short-termism. How can anyone in the position for such a short time do anything meaningful to help solve the chronic lack of housing supply in the UK? At best, they just tinker around the edges.
Many words have been written about this before, but I feel like now is as good a time as any to truly reform the position of housing minister for the long-term health of the market.
How? To begin with, it would make sense to instill a culture of long-term thinking in the housing and planning department.
The easiest way to achieve this would be to create a cross-party committee for housing whose main role is to set policy for the next 20 or 30 years, rather than 20 to 30 months. It would make sense for the housing minister to chair such a committee, but it should be set-up in a way that means the members can continue with their long-term plan when the housing minister is inevitably moved on as part of the Westminster merry-go-round.
In fact, maybe it would be even better to install a Housing Tsar. Someone with real industry experience who actually gives a fig about the housing market and holds this as a long-term position. This would help combat the sort of blighted short-term thinking the current system engenders.
It is perhaps inconceivable at the moment, but the market is crying out for a more active government role in the building of homes. The Government missed a trick during the financial crisis and should have nationalised a housebuilder, a point I made recently in a roundtable hosted by financial communication consultancy MRM.
Unburdened by shareholder pressure and commercial interests, a nationalised housebuilder would actually build the houses we need, rather than the ones builders can sell for the most profit.
The UK needs a greater variation of homes; home for first-time buyers, families, down-sizers and even social housing, not just identikit four-bed detached properties in the suburbs or over-expensive flats in city centres you can’t swing your Aunt Molly’s moggie in.
The builders would fight this tooth and nail, of course. But the way I see it, a Government-backed housebuilder would not be in competition with the incumbents, which could continue to build the homes they are building now. Rather, it would build the homes they don’t want to build – the homes we are desperately short of. Real, affordable homes. If this were to happen, perhaps there would also be less of a need for Government stimulants like Help-to-Buy that inflate prices further.
If the government is serious about housing, it will stop pandering to the housebuilder lobby and instead help formulate a strategy that fosters the development of affordable housing of all shapes and sizes.
Unfortunately, I fear this will not happen any time soon. Not during this parliament. Not until politicians take housing seriously.
I wish Mr Pincher the very best in his new role. He may well buck the trend and instigate meaningful change. However, until the system changes, the deck is stacked against him.