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Seeking out Sharma: who is the new housing minister?

Aloksharma©policy exchange
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Who exactly is the new housing minister and, given the many issues facing the residential sector, what should be his first priorities? asks Kate Youde 

The disastrous fire at Grenfell Tower has made it an intense and shocking start for Alok Sharma in his new role as housing and planning minister. Two days after his appointment by Theresa May, he was facing questions from MPs about the tragic blaze. He will undoubtedly face many more over the coming months as people demand answers about the causes of the tragedy and its implications for high-rise buildings.

His unconvincing media appearances this morning (26 June), and his responses to questions on the Grenfell Tower disaster, suggest he has a lot to learn. His standard response to questions on the fire (as repeated to Radio 5) was: ’Clearly in light of what has happened we are going to have to reflect and be led by the experts.’   

He offered little else.

The Conservative MP must also rise to the challenge of tackling the housing crisis – and deliver on the party’s pledge to build one million homes in England by 2020 – despite not having a background in housing.

Indeed, before his appointment, occasioned by the election defeat of his predecessor, Gavin Barwell, who lost his Croydon Central seat to Labour, he was relatively unknown within the sector.

A chartered accountant who spent 16 years working in banking, Sharma was first elected to his constituency seat of Reading West in 2010 and later became a minister for Asia and the Pacific within the Foreign Office. A former parliamentary private secretary at the Treasury and to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who has responsibility for the Cabinet Office, he has also served as a member of the Commons Treasury and Science and Technology select committees. He was vice-chairman of the Conservative Party between 2012 and 2015 and was appointed last year as the Prime Minister’s infrastructure envoy to India. He supports Heathrow expansion and voted for the UK to remain within the European Union.

Sharma said on Twitter that he was ‘honoured […] to work on building the homes #Britain needs’, yet his website suggests his interest in housing to date has included restricting the building of new homes in his constituency. He ‘has worked with local campaign groups to fight unsustainable development on green spaces like Pincents Hill and scale back housing on the Bath Road Reservoir site. He is committed to campaigning against any unsustainable development across Reading West.’

Alex Ely, principal at London practice Mae, which designed the refused 750-home Pincents Hill scheme for Beyond Green, a company focused on sustainability, admits the ‘ambitious, environmentally-driven’ mixed-use project was proposed for a site not allocated for housing but says Sharma’s appointment is ‘a bit of a worry’. ‘It does seem these housing ministers have a track record of opposing housing,’ he says.

It does seem these housing ministers have a track record of opposing housing

‘The bigger challenge housing ministers – and MPs generally – face is managing their divided responsibility between protecting the interests of current constituents and working in the interests of new constituents who will be housed in the much-needed new developments.’

It is, says Ely, a ‘dysfunctional system’, in which a housing minister might oppose a local development but is in the invidious position that he or she needs to deliver 250,000 homes a year to meet the country’s needs.

’Other than the fact I know he has in the past opposed, I think, what have been quite credible development proposals, the bigger issue is that he has a huge challenge on his hands because the government needs to step up to the mark in the terms of increasing housing supply in a context where prices are going up,’ says Ely. ‘The question of affordability is becoming an ever more distant dream for many.’

To boost delivery, Ely, many of whose clients at Mae are councils, says the government needs to support local authorities to develop homes themselves. He argues that the Housing Revenue Account borrowing cap (a restriction on the amount of money councils can borrow under the self-financing regime introduced in April 2012), lack of resources and in-house skills are acting as barriers to delivery.

‘Tackling the housing crisis is a top political priority and must be done in such a way that allows people and communities to thrive,’ RIBA president Jane Duncan said in a statement welcoming the new minister. ‘The places in which we live, work and play is a real measure of quality of life.

‘The Conservative manifesto recognised the role of the UK’s architects in creating a better built environment and the RIBA will look to engage with this new government on behalf of the UK’s brilliant architects.’

Maggie Mullan, principal at Liverpool-based Maggie Mullan Architects, is interested to see what Sharma takes from the Housing White Paper, published in February. ‘He has a reputation for “toeing the party line” and, given the precarious state of the current government in terms of its mandate, he is unlikely to take a position until he sees how the land lies,’ she says.

She would like the planning system to be his priority, ‘reversing years of talent stripping from local authorities and incentivising individuals to re-enter the public sector’ to improve the approvals process. ‘Perhaps expanding the powers of the metro-mayors to establish “super teams” who deal with complex and polemical applications and strategies would offer the opportunity to bolster the demoralised and overstretched planning teams?’ she suggests. ‘But I won’t be holding my breath.’

Sharma is the sixth housing minister since May 2010; his predecessor was in post for less than a year. ‘I think with the changes of personality […] we need some continuity and stability to address the ongoing housing crisis,’ says Stephen Hodder, of Manchester-based Hodder+Partners, who agrees that addressing affordability should be a priority for Sharma. ‘Whether or not Barwell’s strategies were going to address the housing crisis remained to be seen, as he hadn’t been in the post long enough; but we need to operate in an environment of certainty if we are to address this dire crisis in the housing sector.’

He suggests Barwell was ‘gathering momentum’ and beginning to address how to deliver much-needed homes, so he hopes the change of minister does not bring about a ‘complete shift’.

Barwell has remained in Westminster after losing his marginal Croydon Central seat, becoming the prime minister’s chief of staff, a role which could see him remain influential over housing and planning policy. Hodder hopes Barwell will bring ‘more consensual discussions to bear on Downing Street’. ‘He strikes me as the sort of person who would do that,’ he says.

Michael Heseltine and his estate regeneration panel had started to do some interesting work on the wider societal cost of poor housing with a view to trying to look at government spending across departments, says Ely. He would welcome it if, as May’s aide, Barwell could ‘start joining up some of the dots’ between different departments and agendas.

Meanwhile his business-minded ministerial successor, the AJ understands, is viewed within the Department for Communities and Local Government as being friendly and someone who wants to get things done.

For instance, speaking about the government’s response to Grenfell Tower fire on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, Sharma said: ’If we need to make changes, we will make the changes required. This must never, ever happen again in our country.’ 

The sector will be hoping he is given time to deliver on his promises.

How should Sharma respond to the Grenfell Tower disaster. Former RIBA president Owen Luder suggests an immediate seven-point action plan

1. Institute an immediate review of the statutory fire safety regulations to see if there are any immediate changes necessary based on what is known about the Grenfell Tower fire and the previous fire [at Lakanal House in Camberwell].

2. All residential buildings must be fitted with a universal fire alarm system that gives warning of a fire in the block. 

3. The ‘containment’ principle, whereby residents are told to remain in their flats when a fire starts should be abandoned temporarilly, pending the result of the public inquiry. It clearly did not work in the Grenfell Tower fire and led to many deaths. When a fire starts in any flat or anywhere in the building they should evacuate from the building as speedily and orderly as possible using the designated fire escape routes to the open air and remain there until it is safe to return to the building.

4. Ensure detailed fire safety notices are displayed prominently and permanently in all flats in the entrance hall.

5. Ensure all new and existing flat residents are provided with a hard copy of the fire safety provisions and the provisions and requirements explained to them.

6. Ensure all multi-occupancy residential blocks have in place proper management arrangements that properly deal with dealing and controlling fire outbreaks in their buildings.

7. Insist that all owners of multi-storey tower blocks, both public and private who want to apply a new external ‘skin’, should hold back from any decision to proceed until the results and lessons of the Grenfell Tower fire emerge from the detailed examination and the public inquiry.

These immediate, if temporary, measures would give assurance to the thousand of resident of tower blocks that immediate action had been taken to ensure that they are safe in the buildings they live in pending the result of the public inquiry.

Grenfell tower fire lift metropolitan police photograph june 2017

Grenfell tower fire lift metropolitan police photograph june 2017

Comment:

Teresa Borsuk, senior partner at Pollard Thomas Edwards

Welcome to your new position as housing and planning minister. You have a tough job ahead. We are suffering an ever-increasing housing shortage and are just in the wake of a tragic accident with the loss of many lives and homes. A poignant prompt that the priority is not only about numbers and achieving targets. It is about the most fundamental and basic of needs: having a safe and decent home.

There is no silver bullet. This is a problem that needs a holistic overview. Investigate the issues. Involve all the key stakeholders. Listen, review and act. Be nimble. Consider what we have in our existing built stock, empty sites and underutilised buildings. Take a more innovative stance on alternative landholdings. Invite more players to the procurement table. Broaden the housing range. Provide policy certainty to enable longer term planning. Address the skills shortage in the construction industry. Reform the planning system. Simplify the delivery process.

You are the fifth housing minister in five years. Strong leadership is crucial. Your first priority is to stay in office long enough to make a difference.

  • 2 Comments

Readers' comments (2)

  • It seems like, the minister is being vilified before he has had a chance to become familiar with his brief. The concern surely lies with the process of electing people into positions where they have limited experience in the subject area. This is not only evident in the high offices but also across many other public institutions where nepotism is rampant. It will be important for the minister to ensure he seeks advice from those who have genuine concerns for the cause and not for self promotion or self interests.

    It is also important the commentators need to understand the complexities of dealing with difficult events such as the Grenfell Tower can not be answered overnight as often is demanded from those with little responsibilities in the media, asking questions is perhaps the easier aspect!

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  • Going by his lacklustre performance on BBC R4 'Today' this morning, the polite answer would be to say that he's yet to find his feet - and the blunt answer would be to say that he needs to get his act together, fast.

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