James Kirkup

It’s time for a real Department of Housing, with a minister to match

It's time for a real Department of Housing, with a minister to match
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'I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and I intend to spend it'.  That was how George W Bush put it after winning his second presidential election in 2004. He’s possibly not the best model for good governance, but the sentiment is worth pondering as Theresa May rolls on relentlessly towards victory.

Mrs May will wake on June 9 with money in the bank, politically if not fiscally. She’ll have crushed and possibly split apart the Labour Party, secured her party another five years in office and stamped and stamped and stamped her personal authority on the Conservative Party. 

With every day that passes, there are more whispers that she’ll use that victory to do a little more stamping still, eliminating Cabinet ministers seen to have underperformed or dissented. For all the spectacle of George Osborne’s evisceration, the last May ministry had some continuity from the Cameron era. Next month, she’ll have the scope to remake the Government entirely. But even if she does, will it be enough? What about the Whitehall machine her ministerial team operates? Are the Civil Service and the departments of state it runs fit for Mrs May’s purposes? I wonder.

By and large, I’m wary of restructuring Whitehall departments. Much like corporate take-overs and mergers, structural tinkering is good for advisers, scribblers and short-term headlines, but rarely adds long-term value, even after the short-term transitional costs are paid. But I’m still starting to wonder if Whitehall today is configured properly to do things that Mrs May could and should do on the domestic front.

Take two big issues where government is essentially failing and has failed for some time, regardless of who’s been in office: social care, and housing. Care is currently largely the job of local authorities, who are (partly) funded and overseen by the Department for Communities and Local Government. But the performance of the care sector is indivisible from the condition of the National Health Service, still, just about, overseen by the Department of Health despite Simon Stevens’ taste for independence.

Housing, again largely the purview of local councils operating within a framework set by central government also comes under the DCLG umbrella. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that either the chronic and systemic failure to properly care for the frail and elderly or the chronic and systemic failure to build enough houses to meet the demand for housing are solely the result of the DCLG’s structure or performance. But I am suggesting that the DCLG as it is currently constituted is not the most effective tool for ministers to use to grip those two issues.

This, perhaps, explains in part why Sajid Javid’s name appears on the whisperers’ list of ministers who have displeased Mrs May and her team, though association with Mr Osborne is probably a bigger factor. Maybe Mrs May will indeed remove Mr Javid from the DCLG, but whether or not she does, she should take the opportunity to ask whether his department itself should be on the chopping block.

Dismembering a department can be a messy business, but Mrs May and her team are hardly squeamish. Nor do they have any illusions about the Civil Service; she clashed horribly with her first permanent secretary at the Home Office, and retains a deep scepticism about the Treasury at an institutional level. They also have form here: as well creating the Department for Exiting the European Union and the Department for International Trade last year on taking office, she also dismantled the Department of Energy and Climate change and handed most of the pieces to Greg Clark’s still-unpronounceable Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, while shifting higher education back to the education department.

So maybe the time has come for a new Department for Housing with its own Secretary of State. When filling that job, Mrs May could do worse than the current housing minister, Gavin Barwell, though there’s another candidate who offers the skills and experience needed to crack the housing problem, who may be looking for a new job and whose appointment would signal that housing really is important to the May Government: Philip Hammond. The chancellor is, among other things, a former property developer who probably knows more about building houses than anyone else in government.

It’s also time to consider a combined Department for Health and Care. As for the minister to run it, someone needs to speak up for Jeremy Hunt, who has done a rather better job of managing a dysfunctional system than he’s often given credit for. But if he does move on as the gossips predict, could this be a job for No 10’s blue-eyed boy, Sir Michael Fallon? And while we’re on the subject of restructuring, it should be noted that committing to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on foreign aid does not mean committing to the existence of a standalone foreign aid department.

Having ripped the European guts out of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office over Brexit, some Tories think Mrs May could make some amends by letting the FCO devour the Department for International Development,  perhaps saving a slice for the Ministry of Defence. If Britain is prepared to leave the EU, it can surely challenge the OECD standard that determines what can and cannot be counted towards that 0.7 per cent figure. 

Whitehall restructuring is never going to excite anyone outside Whitehall, and Mrs May will certainly have other, more pressing things to think about after the election. But there are worse ways to spend political capital than giving yourself the tools you need to get the job done.