It’s not every day you discover you have something in common with a Secretary of State. I’ve run through the odd wheat field in my time, but it was on this Monday that I discovered that my first day at Iceni coincided with that of the new Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government: James Brokenshire.
Mr Brokenshire, having previously held the post of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland up until January 2018 when he stood down on the grounds of ill health, took over from Sajid Javid who has taken on the gauntlet of Home Secretary following the resignation of Amber Rudd. A key ally of May and a remain voter, critics will be quick to argue that this is further proof of the lack of a ‘strong and stable’ government.
So what experience does James Brokenshire bring to the role? What can we predict will be his approach to housing development and planning policy? At this point, very little. He has no previous expertise or Government experience in this area. We know that in the past he has supported Osborne’s stamp duty reforms, Help to Buy, and has praised measures to improve the levels of homeownership. A sentiment that was echoed in his first tweet as Secretary: ‘Looking forward to taking the Government’s agenda forward especially on building the homes our country needs’.
Taking a look at his local campaigns in the leafy suburban constituency of Old Bexley and Sidcup – they have rarely focused on planning, although he has supported local efforts to improve affordable housing. In Parliament, his statements on housing have mainly been made in his capacity as immigration minster. In May 2016 he noted “the pressures that migration brings to public services such as the health service, housing and schools”. In December 2010, he promised to examine the development of a “payment-by-results approach to housing services” for people with substance addiction issues. He is also a private landlord and has declared rental income from a house in Essex.
On Monday, after he had barely tweeted his acceptance, he was in Parliament to answer questions from MPs – deferring housing policy questions to the Housing Minister Dominic Raab MP. The Secretary of State continued to receive questions on local government cuts, funding for infrastructure and diversity in the housing market. Questions also predictably focused on the need to support local councils in light of Government cuts (the Local Government Association puts the funding gap at £5bn for local authorities), something that his predecessor has been seen to spectacularly fail on. His answers were uncontroversial and concise, which is likely to reassure the PM but gives little away in terms of his future vision for the Ministry.
However, we remain cautiously optimistic, a sentiment that is echoed by Iceni’s own Ian Anderson:
“Will it be all change or more of the same from the new Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government? We expect (and hope) to see some continuity and stability. James Brokenshire is something of an unknown quantity, with no previous ministerial experience in this department and no publicly stated positions on housing or planning.
“Let’s hope that the Secretary of State’s tweet on being appointed, in which he commits to taking forward the Government’s housing agenda, bodes well. We shall soon see, with the NPPF consultation drawing to a close, an upcoming Select Committee inquiry into land value capture and local plan interventions on the horizon for three local authorities.”
Despite his frontbench experience, Brokenshire’s team will be rapidly briefing him in the current weeks and months to bring him up to speed on what is a very large and varied brief. Considering his voting history, he’ll be viewed essentially as a safe pair of hands politically, and is unlikely to break from the party line. As Ian suggests, it will be interesting to see how the new Secretary of State fares as he joins at a time with the publication of the new NPPF and the Letwin review on the horizon.
This role also comes with the high expectations that James Brokenshire will do more to push forward on the PM’s housing drive which made little progress under Javid. His strength at the moment is more of a symbolic one as he represents a steadying influence in May’s increasingly fragile Cabinet. We will be monitoring his progress closely to see whether he lives up to it.01