Happy New Year to you all – although it has to be said that the new decade has kicked off with anything but happiness: instead there is a sense of Apocalypse, with Australia on fire and Iran threatening retribution in the West for the assassination of General Soleimani.
But in housing we have more prosaic matters to attend to, not least dealing with a new Conservative government with a large majority. How should the sector respond to the new political situation? Grudging co-operation; enthusiastic collaboration; opposition? I have written before about Boris Johnson’s views on housing, and it is obviously disappointing that the Tory manifesto said little about social housing compared to the other parties. For some, the future looks gloomy, but there are chinks of light, as I wrote here.
One of the more interesting developments over the Christmas break was a “job advert” published by Dominic Cummings calling for people to apply to work in government.
I have to say I find Cummings a fascinating character. Depending upon your point of view, he is either a genius (perhaps an evil genius) or a charlatan, but the fact that he has twice outwitted and outmanoeuvred his opponents, first as Director of the Vote Leave Campaign, and then as éminence grise directing the 2019 election, suggests the former moniker is more apt. If only we had living writers of the calibre of Dickens, Thackeray or Evelyn Waugh – what a glorious satiric banquet they would create out of this scruffy, weird individual sitting at the heart of Downing Street. If you want a flavour of his spiky, belligerent character take a look at his appearances before the Treasury select committee, or his encounter with Lewis Goodall of Sky News (Goodall is now policy editor of BBC’s Newsnight).
There are some in our sector who would describe Cumming as a “disruptor”. Others would be less charitable.
Anyway, back to his rambling blog post in which he calls for a range of experts to apply for posts in government, including data scientists, software developers, unconventional economists, policy experts and “Weirdos and misfits with odd skills”. Cummings has a low opinion of most MPs and civil servants, and he is clearly trying to overturn and subvert the Whitehall machine. The mandarins have already hit back by claiming that he is not able to recruit directly. But I am sure he will find a way to by-pass them.
I suggested on Twitter that people in our sector should consider applying for these jobs but my SHOUT colleague Tom Murtha demurred, “Why would you want to work with the most corrupt government in my lifetime?” he asked.
Tom has solid principles, but I think this is rather short- sighted. If you look at the historical record, the Conservatives have governed for around two thirds of the post-war period. Labour has only been in power for barely 27 of the past 75 years. It is no good waiting forever for a Labour government to appear. And which year saw the greatest output of social housing in England? It was 1953 when 198,200 council homes out of a total output of 263,680 were built. Harold Macmillan, an old-school Tory, was housing minister. This was far in excess of Labour’s annus mirabilis of 1967 when 154,500 council homes were built (albeit out of a total output of 342,740). So the political picture is less clear cut than many would imagine. For the housing sector, opposition is self-defeating; you have to work with whoever is in power and I think that many more Tories now accept that tackling the housing crisis is a very high priority for this government.
Yes, it is true that the Conservatives have a poor recent track record on social housing. But Boris Johnson has accepted that Tory votes in the so-called Labour Wall and other deprived areas have been gained on a short-term lease. One of the very best ways to bring real jobs and prosperity to those areas is to invest in infrastructure and housing, especially social housing. That is the message we need to be promoting with the utmost vigour. That means every housing provider reaching out to their local Conservative MPs with tenfold the effort they have employed in the past, to make the case for investment. If it does not happen, then the voters will eventually return to Labour, inevitably.
But having a voice at the heart of government is also critical. We need people making the case for social housing in Number Ten. So if you are a housing policy expert and perhaps a weirdo to boot (I can think of a few) then make your application now!
This blog was first published by the Housing Quality Network on 9th January 2020.