The Housing Minister merry-go-round

Let the doors be shut upon him,
that he may play the fool no-where but in’s own house

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Taught at the beginning of all A Level Psychology courses, and most management courses. Sets out the hierarchy upwards of basic human requirements: the physiological (food, shelter, sleep, clothing), safety (personal security, money, job security), love and belonging needs (friendship, love, family), esteem (status, recognition), and self-actualization (the desire to be the best you can be).

All the needs lower down in the hierarchy must be satisfied before individuals can attend to needs higher up. So far so Psychology 101.

Of that first level of physiological needs, one of the things that leaps out from the list is SHELTER. The need to be protected from the elements, the need to have somewhere to lay your head after a weary day, the need for a base, for somewhere to feel rooted, for somewhere to be – you. In other words, a home. That home might be a house, a flat, a rented apartment, a two-up-two-down-terrace or an 8-bedroomed country estate. Unless it’s something like a canal boat, it will all come under the vague banner of ‘housing’. As such, it will be the remit of the government’s housing minister. Who is…hang on let me check…Oh they’ve gone, it must be…nope, they’ve gone too.

Pop-quiz hot-shots: What do the following Conservative MPs all have in common? Gavin Barwell, Alok Sharma, Dominic Raab, Kit Malthouse, Esther McVey, Chris Pincher, Stuart Andrew, Marcus Jones, Lee Rowley, Lucy Frazer? They have all served as housing minister at some point in the Conservative government in the past five years. Only a handful of them have done two years in post.  Frazer, who was moved to the post of culture secretary today after a little over three months in the post, was the 14th since the last Labour administration. Enough for a football team. Give it until Christmas and we’ll have enough for a rugby team with a few finishers.

Housing minister is the sort of role that aspiring Cabinet members know they have to get under their belt. It’s a stepping stone to the real, meaty stuff that matters. Except housing really does matter. It’s part of our essential physiological needs, and yet it is not treated with the respect it so desperately needs by politicians. The last two MPs to have anything like a vocation, if you like, for housing, were Labour’s John Healey and Nick Raynsford. Every single other one has seen it as something to put on the parliamentary CV, something you do at Parliamentary-Primary-School before moving onto Big School

The Treasury is, of course, the big boy when it comes to setting policies that actually cost money, so it would be easy to say that this means the housing Minister merry-go-round doesn’t really matter. Until you think about the stuff that won’t get done, won’t get signed off, won’t get discussed until the someone new at the helm has had all the briefings, the introductory meetings and got their heads round the new department. Stuff that matters, like building regs, like policy reform, like planning issues, like support for housing associations and for tenants, just sits on desks, gathering dust, or drops further and further down the in-box.

We have a housing crisis in this country. Too many people have no-where decent to live. This isn’t going to get sorted while prime ministers play with their deckchairs in an effort to head off the iceberg.

In the great scheme of things of course, none of our whining about which MP gets to do what really matters. Housing matters, it really does. But people matter more. Two thousand miles away from Westminster a man sat holding the hand of his 15 year old daughter, crushed to death when a building collapsed on her.

20,000 people, millions more affected. They matter. The ministerial merry-go-round doesn’t.


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About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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