The housing secretary ignores the hard work and goodwill of so many housing professionals at his peril. There may be unintended consequences to the blame being dished out, Brendan Kilpatrick writes

Brendan Kilpatrick of PRP

Brendan Kilpatrick

Those who know me will recognise my liking for analogies and old sayings which sum up or shed light on contemporary issues. One of my favourites is “people in glass houses should not throw stones”.

This is precisely what the UK government is doing at the moment.

The stone thrower-in-chief is Michael Gove, who has launched a fusillade against the entire housing sector without considering the law of unintended consequences. Gove made a fortuitous return to government last October following the demise of Liz Truss’s brief and ill-fated leadership. 

The levelling-up secretary is one of few cabinet ministers with a reputation for getting things done quickly. Just over a year ago, he threatened major housebuilders in England with a nationwide ban if they failed to sign a building safety contract. 

His initial tirade was directed against the builders of tall residential towers who seemed to dodge responsibility for their role in constructing dangerous cladding and insulation on these buildings.  

Despite most builders continuing to follow his tune, he has launched an investigation into their commercial activity

Despite its draconian nature, the move was widely received as sensible, even by some of the targeted constructors, as it aimed to ease the plight of leaseholders caught in tall buildings and facing gigantic remediation bills. Most of the developers signed up. However, Gove was just getting started.

Shortly afterwards, he accused the nation’s biggest housebuilders of operating a cartel. A year later, and despite most builders continuing to follow his tune, he has launched an investigation into their commercial activity even after the Letwin review a few years prior found little, if anything, wrong with the sector.

>> Also read: Gove’s retreat into nimbyism spells political trouble for the Tories

>> Also read: Fight with housebuilders on the cards as Gove goes back to the future

Not content with demonising the private sector, Gove then turned his ire on the social housing sector. This shift followed the tragic death of two-year old Awaab Ishaak in a socially-rented dwelling in Rochdale.

The government tabled an amendment to the Social Housing Regulation Bill relating to hazards in social homes, compelling registered providers to ensure that the homes they rent to families are safe. While no one would argue against this direction, it is a pity that such a measure was required at all. 

Last December, Gove singled out Clarion, one of the UK’s largest housing associations, for what he called a string of failures and went on to name and shame three other registered housing providers for basic failings on their watch.

There may be unintended consequences to the blame being dished out.

The affordable housing sector in this country relies heavily on the hard work and goodwill of countless housing management workers who go above and beyond their specific job description to help tenants live their lives as well as possible. This dedication comes despite countless cuts to social housing funding since the 1980s.

How are housing association and council staff members, who provide services to those most in need, expected to respond to criticisms of the organisations they work for? The impact may also extend beyond the registered housing providers.

The construction sector is crucial to the country’s economy but it has traditionally struggled to attract top talent. That difficulty has just increased. 

The government seems blissfully unaware of the mayhem it has unleashed

The current government consultation on two staircases in tall residential buildings is another case of unintended consequences. The uncertainty created by the consultation has severely impacted the housing sector’s productivity.  The cost to the sector is immeasurable and may well cause a ripple effect on existing or recently completed buildings at any height with only one staircase.

Yet the government seems blissfully unaware of the mayhem it has unleashed. The fact that the UK is an outlier in allowing tall residential buildings to be constructed with a single staircase is, no doubt in Gove’s eyes, the fault of the housing sector.  

It is certainly not the fault, one may presume, of those who pass the laws in the first place. In terms of planning policy, if the government considered for one moment the effect on peoples’ lives of Gove’s reversal on the National Planning Policy Framework, due to rebellious Tory back-benchers, then it might adopt some humility.  How many families will be deprived of a chance to live in an affordable home following the inevitable fall in housing starts owing to this ultimately self-defeating policy directive?

It may be time for Gove to ease off on the stone-throwing and to consider the alternative consequences of his words and deeds. It is time for some praise for the sector and for some serious consideration of how well the country would be placed (socially, environmentally, and economically) if the government’s ambition was to house everyone properly, to reduce the scandalously large council housing waiting lists, and to divert meaningful funding to social housing.

To end on another old saying, “raise the boats for everyone in the country” – and that includes Gove’s beleaguered government.   

Brendan Kilpatrick is senior partner at PRP