Tuesday, 9 January 2018
One of the really big and important announcements yesterday in the course of Theresa May’s masterly and authoritative re-shuffle of her cabinet was that Sayid Javid, in addition to keeping his current job, is to be known in future as the Secretary of State for HOUSING, Communities and Local Government, and his department will be similarly renamed. The whole world stands back in amazement at this revolutionary and epoch-making change.
Voters who don’t follow these matters as closely as planning anoraks (planoraks?) like me may not be aware that Housing has in fact been one of this ministry’s major responsibilities for the past 70 years. But now this closely-guarded state secret has been revealed to the whole world.
My immediate problem is that I will no longer be able to refer to the Department as “De-CLoG” (a name, incidentally, which I did not coin myself - one of my friends in the Planning Inspectorate told me that this is the name by which the Department is known within PINS). “De-HoCLoG” just doesn’t work, and even if we use an updated variant on the department’s own preferred moniker, so that it becomes HCLG, this doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue.
I know; I’ve just had an idea. We should call it the Ministry (or Department, if you prefer) of Housing and Local Government. Brilliant! I wonder why nobody ever thought of such an obvious name before. In practice, now that Housing is the first element in the Department’s name, the popular press will probably refer to it simply as “the Housing Department”, and to the Secretary of State as “the Minister of Housing”. In public relations terms, this spotlight on the Department’s housing brief may not be to the government’s advantage.
There is still a junior housing minister, and Dominic Raab (MP for Esher and Walton) has today replaced Alok Sharma in this role. Raab was previously a junior minister in the Department of Justice. The PM had already set Housing as a major priority for De-CLoG, and so the name change simply underlines the fact that Javid will be held personally responsible if the Department fails to deliver, both literally and metaphorically, on the housing front.
He will have an uphill struggle, however. Thanks to the enthusiastic welcome given by Eric Pickles (‘Uncle Eric’, remember him?) to entirely unnecessary austerity cuts imposed by the Treasury under the Tory-dominated coalition government, De-CLoG took a particularly hard hit in terms of staff numbers, with the result that it is now woefully short of the staff resources it needs to beef up housing delivery, or to perform its various other functions effectively.
Early last year I expressed scepticism following publication of the government’s Housing White Paper. To use one of Theresa May’s favourite mantras – “Nothing has changed. Nothing. Has. Changed.” The White Paper re-stated the government’s aim of building a million new homes by 2020. As I pointed out last year, this would require an annual completion rate as high as, if not higher than, the building rate achieved under the dynamic leadership of Harold Macmillan as Minister of Housing and Local Government in the early 1950s, which included a substantial proportion of publicly funded social housing [yes, “council houses”]. Does the government seriously expect the private sector now to match that building rate without such a significant public sector input? We are already a quarter of the way through the period within which their ambitious housing target was to be achieved. Were there a quarter of a million housing starts or housing completions in 2017? If not, then the build rate will have to accelerate to an even higher annual figure if the government is to stand any chance of meeting its 1 million-home target by the end of 2020.
The basic problem is the same across all areas of government - housing, the NHS, social care, education, and many others. Despite empty words from the Prime Minister, austerity continues apace, and more spending cuts are in the pipeline. Our public services are crying out for extra spending and urgent capital investment. Raising the pathetically low rate of standard rate income tax (and, for the sake of fairness, also raising higher rates of tax going well above 50%) is the only way that this can be achieved. This is, of course, against the Conservative Party’s religion, and so it won’t happen under this government. Not surprisingly, the government’s efforts to appeal to younger voters and to a wider social spread of voters are unlikely to yield the electoral dividends they seem to expect. This government (like all its predecessors) will be judged by its record, not by public relations 'spin'.
© MARTIN H GOODALL