There have been seven housing ministers in the last nine years and an astonishing 17 since 2000. Dominic Raab had only been in post for six months – he left to become Brexit secretary last July – when the present incumbent, Kit Malthouse, took over. Mr Raab’s predecessor, Gavin Barwell, was in the job for less than a year.
As recorded in official statistics, our number of housing completions, which has stuck at around 165,000 for the past couple of years, is about half the government’s target. The continuing chaos of Brexit, which has further accelerated the ministerial merry-go-round, may have diverted media attention, but the connected crises of unaffordability across all tenures, looming labour and skills shortages, the ongoing lack of supply and insecurity for tenants are certain to come back into the headlines – as are the multiple failings of regulation and accountability that contributed to the Grenfell Tower fire in the summer of 2018.
New to the scene, Conservative MP for Pendle, Andrew Stephenson, has just been announced as our latest construction minister, working for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. He follows Richard Harrington in this post, the MP for Watford who resigned from government earlier this month, in protest of Theresa May’s handling of Brexit. Cynics say that Mr Pendle, who is regarded as one or Ms May’s cronies and was previously third in line in the whip’s office, may only last in government a little longer than she does. In any case, infrastructure and construction only takes tenth place in his very long list of ministerial responsibilities – it also includes industrial strategy, aerospace, advanced manufacturing, materials, automotive, nuclear, professional services, rail supply chain, defence, maritime, pub codes policy and supply chains. With so much on his plate, how much is he likely to achieve?
Mr Stephenson won his first seat, as Conservative MP for Pendle, in May 2010. As well as working in the whips’ office, he has been Lord Commissioner of HM Treasury.
He takes up his job at a very difficult time. As reported in Brownfield Briefing, the fact that the UK is stuck in the revolving door of Brexit is leading to uncertainty and a pronounced dip in construction (only the logistics and warehouse sectors appear to be doing reasonably well). A particularly concerning figure is a 13% fall in National House Building Council registrations for new new private sector developments in Q1 of 2019, compared to last year, and an 11% fall for housing associations. In February, the Construction Products Association predicted a 20% fall in office and commercial building in the coming year. Construction is a lightning rod for the economy and, with most indicators turning downwards, there were 3,000 insolvencies in the construction sector in 2018.
The industry is concerned too that restricted labour mobility post Brexit will have a further negative impact. The FMB has warned that more than 9% of the UK’s construction workers are from the EU, rising to a third in London.
Emphasising their concerns, five of the largest construction trade organisations wrote an open letter to Theresa May earlier this year, warning that a no-deal Brexit scenario could lead to a 4% fall in construction output this year and a further 2% next year. It was signed by the Association for Consultancy and Engineering, the Civil Engineering Contractors Association, the Federation of Master Builders, the Construction Products Association and Build UK.
Responding to the appointment of Mr Stephenson, Brian Berry, chief executive of the FMB called for a mandatory UK licensing scheme for developers and contractors, in order to raise standards in the sector and to purge it of "rogue firms and unprofessional outfits".
He commented: "A mandatory licensing scheme has widespread support among the industry and homeowners, alike. The government must legislate to stop the scourge of unprofessional behaviour blighting the entire industry."
Yet another item to add to Mr Stephenson’s formidable to-do list. But how much can we reasonably expect from someone who is unlikely to be around for very long?