When Stephen Barclay, the secretary of state at the Department for Exiting the European Union, resigned at 23:01 hours on 31 January as his department wound itself up, he started the reshuffle Boris made clear would follow once we had formally left the EU.
Boris is actually known to hate reshuffles because he knows a great truth about politics: when you promote an MP they just wonder why it took you so long to recognise their talent. But sack a minister and you make an enemy for life. Want to know where the serial rebels will come from as this parliament wends its minimum four-year journey? Make a note of any discarded ex-ministers. Never fails.
Another perennial habit of prime ministers is to shuffle departments. I worked in the Department of Trade and Industry. It later became the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, then the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and then Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. We once had the Department for Communities and Local Government; now we have the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government. In my next life, I want to be the government’s sign writer. I’d make a fortune.
But whatever its fancy name, whoever is in charge of running the country’s housing and planning policy, not to mention sorting out the financing of local government, will have a big job on their hands. Building enough affordable homes will top the list, but the problem with Tory ministers is they tend to be obsessed with home ownership and thus Help to Buy, when the reality, particularly for this generation, is far more nuanced.
The recent spat between secretary of state Robert Jenrick and his housing and planning minister Esther McVey (pictured) summed this up perfectly. He is the champion of homeowners and she the avowedly working-class champion of affordable renters. They’re both right, but it doesn’t feel that way when all the emphasis is on ownership.
Ministers also have to decide whether it is viable to stick to another government obsession – preserving the green belt, 70 years on from its foundation. It will mean open war with The Daily Telegraph, which panders to its Tory readership, assuming they are all obsessive Nimbys. Interestingly, recent polling evidence suggests people are less concerned about a new estate next door than about how their own children can’t afford to live anywhere near them.
But will this government dare? Its predecessors repeatedly said they liked garden villages but there’s no evidence to prove it. On the contrary, several well-worked schemes like Peter Freeman’s Mayfield in West Sussex have had little or no government support.
Permitted development is another open sore. It is the wrong answer to the right question. Just because Labour calls for its abolition should not persuade this government to keep it. PD is a dangerous move that has created some of London’s worst housing in a generation.
Business rates are of course in desperate need of reform. Oh, and this government needs to take the challenge of reforming the planning system head on as none of its predecessors have done for decades. Watch this space!
Steve Norris is chairman of Soho Estates and This Land