The Man Behind the PM's Personal Mission?
With £2b for social rented homes, a benign post 2020 rent deal and a Prime Ministerial name-check, housing’s relationship with Government is utterly transformed since the dark days of late 2015 when nationalisation was mooted within the inner sanctum of N10. Yes there’s more to do – most notably sorting out the car crash which will be a Local Housing Allowance cap on Supported Housing. But today housing associations can count themselves as a genuinely trusted partner of Government for the first time since the Conservatives swept to power as a coalition.
So what is behind this remarkable change of fortunes? There are a number of factors. We can trace the origins back to the NHF’s bold and controversial decision to back the Voluntary Right to Buy deal; resistance then may well have resulted in an out-right assault on the housing association sector. That moment was the jump off point for the NHF and sector leaders to build a new and more positive dialogue, build around a growing ambition to deliver the supply and ownership agenda of Government. This was always going to take time. And in itself was unlikely to have resulted in a sitting Prime Minister citing housing associations as the key to helping deliver her personal mission to fix the broken housing market. For that, we can thank former Housing Minister Gavin Barwell despite serving less than a year in the role after losing his Croydon Central seat in the June election.
That election loss sparked a clear out of the PM’s unpopular two key advisors and Barwell was brought in as Chief of Staff. Several things were striking about him. Firstly, as a central London MP where around 4 in 10 homes are built by housing associations, he had a very real, practical and positive appreciation of the role we play in delivering affordable homes for a range of people. Secondly, as a modern and dynamic thinker he was perhaps more ideologically comfortable with the concept of ‘social housing’ as a delivery platform, compared to the more traditional conservative view that the ‘private sector’ was the default mechanism for delivering homes at scale. Crucially, his engagement and enthusiasm with housing associations was obvious and meant that he got to grips with the business mechanics and understood the sector’s ethos – and therefore potential – very quickly. Finally, he and Government had increasingly recognised that the self-limiting business model of the private developers was unlikely to deliver a step-change in supply at the expense of profit margins.
So when housing lost an exceptionally capable advocate in the summer, it immediately gained a powerful and well-informed ally right at the heart of Government. With the PM was looking for a flagship policy platform to make her own, align with her commitment to social justice, and reach out to those drifting towards Corbyn’s resurgent Labour, Barwell was ideally placed to deliver for her; and us.