It’s been 22 years since a housing minister last failed to address the CIH annual housing conference.
But this year, on the final day of conference, the newly appointed housing minister Alok Sharma MP pulled out of his keynote speaking slot, citing practicalities over the Grenfell Tower fire management, and passed the buck to Marcus Jones MP, local government minister and MP for Nuneaton.
It should have been a great chance for Sharma to meet and engage with his housing stakeholders. To talk through his vision for housing and to win over housing professionals already skeptical over his lack of housing experience.
Instead, his first impression as a housing minister will be, at best, an impression to forget. And at worst, it could prove a first impression from which he cannot recover.
Would it have been a hard gig for Sharma? Undoubtedly. He has an emerging reputation as a housing skeptic – after opposing flagship new developments in his Reading West constituency and showing little interest in housing issues regionally.
But at a conference where the housing sector is badly shaken after the Grenfell Tower tragedy, and where uncertainty lingers following the snap general election, where austerity is losing favour and the future post-Brexit is no clearer, engagement with the housing minister would have been welcome.
Instead, it was up to Marcus Jones MP to fill in and address the conference delegates. The establishment of an advisory panel in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire provides some hope that action on fire safety won’t need to wait for the results of a full inquiry before necessary action is taken to make tower blocks safer.
A commitment to review building regulations in light of Grenfell Tower goes some way to demonstrating housing safety is a priority for the government.
Jones’ commitment to “put tenants at the heart of future regeneration” is a clear signal to social housing tenants that the government has heard their cries to be listened to. This also counters tenant concerns that local authorities and housing associations have failed to engage meaningfully and listen to tenant feedback.
Finally, a commitment to tackle street homelessness via the Homeless Reduction Act hopes to tackle an issue on which that the Conservatives have a poor track record since 2010. For Jones’ “one homeless person out on the streets is one too many”.
The minister couldn’t stay for questions from the floor – time was pressing and like Sharma he had places to be. Audible groans from the conference floor reflected the conference mood.
The jury is out, the housing sector needs constructive engagement and support from the government. For the first time in years the CIH keynote ministerial speech couldn’t provide it.
See Media is attending the three days of Housing 2017 in Manchester. We will blog each day on our take on the highlights at www.see-media.co.uk