After Grenfell it is more important than ever that housing is a UK Government priority

By Ray Clancy, Property Wire Editor

The UK has its tenth housing minister in 10 years and the previous incumbent, while regarded as having done a good job, is now being asked why fire safety recommendations from 2013 appear not to have been taken up.

In the wake of the terrible fire at Grenfell Tower in London, Gavin Barwell, who lost his seat at the general election but is now the Government’s Chief of Staff, and others have been criticised for not acting on the report from the All Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group after six died in a fire at Lakanal House in 2009.

The group said that Barwell and others repeatedly turned down requests for meetings to discuss a review of housing rules and they were told that the proposals were being considered. It is now up to new housing minister Alok Sharma, an accountant, to make sure that they are.

This is terribly important because the fire at Grenfell Tower reminds us all that housing is about people and their homes. Yet, it seems to have become a political and financial issue and real people have been forgotten.

Sharma will have a lot in his in-tray with long standing issues to be dealt with, the Housing White Paper and now questions about housing safety all needing attention. He needs to take on board that building affordable and safe homes needs to be a priority.

But, as the Housing White Paper suggested, the planning system need to be reformed before they key strategies can be advanced. Demand continues to greatly outstrip supply in our housing markets, pushing up prices despite a level of political and economic uncertainty that should be depressing the market far more than it is.

The housing market needs reform, it needs greater transparency and more appropriate regulations, as does building and construction, all going hand in hand. We might normally expect more information in the Queen’s Speech but that has been delayed and next year’s one cancelled which means that Brexit talks will be ‘allowed’ to dominate the political agenda.

And here likes the crux of the matter. Brexit negotiations start today and, as can be seen from the level of priority given by the fumbling current Government to it, housing is likely to fall down the agenda. The press is rightly questioning what has been happening with fire and safety regulations that led to Grenfell Tower’s questionable refurbishment, and these must be priorities.

Publicity will demand that refurbishment and construction safety are addressed and quite rightly too, but it means that other housing issues will be pushed to the back of the list. Short sightedness has been prevalent when it comes to housing policy for decades and nothing seems to have changed.

Now if Sharma really wants to make a difference what he should be doing is making sure that housing does not drift away under a tide of Brexit priorities. He should be calling for a cross party agreement and non-partisan approach to determining housing policy to put homes on a more stable footing for the long term.

Now, more than ever housing has to be a top priority for the nation yet I fear that with a hung Parliament, Brexit negotiations, rising inflation, members of the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee leaning towards an interest rate rise, and a new man in the housing minister’s post it could easily slip.

Barwell was praised for being proactive, for facing up to vested interest groups and for being determined to face the challenges in the sector. Now there are even more challenges in the brief and sadly the future of housing in the UK depends on how long the current Government will last, and the new housing minister!

It has been suggested that more details of what is planned for housing and how and where the millions plus new homes will be built as promised will come in the Autumn Budget, but that is too late, too late for ordinary people who deserve more than a house because they deserve a home, a safe place to live. Over to you Mr Sharma.

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