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The Emperor’s New Gove

New housing policies are still avoiding the real issue

Artillery Row

On Sunday, there was fanfare over a new policy announced by Michael Gove, Secretary of State for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

His department has decided that social housing managers must now “gain professional qualifications under new rules to protect residents and raise standards in the sector”. Around 25,000 managers will soon have to jump through Ofqual-regulated hoops.

The policy was motivated by two terrible events: the Grenfell Tower fire, in which 72 people perished; and the tragic death of Awaab Ishak, aged two, who had suffered from a respiratory condition caused by mould at his home in Rochdale, Greater Manchester.

These events shocked and stained the nation; they remain a blight on our society. Understandably people want to take action and make sure these ills never occur again.

Gove’s reforms do not achieve that. In fact, whilst he acts as though morally sickened by the housing sector, he and the government are complicit in its harms — which will grow without serious intervention and ambition.

It is lacklustre legislation, achieving the bare minimum for living standards

Looking at the Housing Secretary’s reforms in a very detached manner, it’s hard not to summarise Gove’s latest achievement as the following: it’s now harder for your landlord to kill you. Why we are meant to celebrate this purported breakthrough remains a mystery to me.

Likewise, why are we meant to be pleased with prior legislation (released earlier in February) meaning that social landlords will have to fix damp and mould within strict time limits? Poignantly named “Awaab’s Law”, many liked the idea of Awabb’s legacy continuing. Gove was also praised. Leaving aside the good intentions of those wanting justice for Awabb, it is lacklustre legislation, achieving the bare minimum for living standards.

Given Gove’s reputation as a political genius, he surely knows as much as anyone that the gargantuan elephant in the room is that demand for housing radically outpaces supply. A new report by Centre for Cities suggests that the UK is missing around four million homes.

This inevitably turns the housing market into something rather like Hunger Games, with tenants fighting it out for space. Landlords, private and social, have carte blanche to treat renters pretty much how they like. Those who complain about mould or rent rises can be turfed out with Section 21 notices, as they are easily replaced. Recently, as an example of how feral the UK’s housing market has become, a colleague told me how she had been queuing for a viewing in a private rental, when another woman broke down in tears. She begged other prospective tenants for the room — as she was about to be made homeless. My colleague added that this room was mouldy and unattractive.

Social media shouldn’t always be taken as a “metric” of public sentiment, but it’s impossible not to notice an avalanche of despair about the housing market at present, particularly among Gen Z and millennials. Huge numbers of people are being subjected to untenable conditions, as well as having to pay hundreds more (per month) in rent hikes. With house building in England due to fall to its lowest level since the Second World War, not to mention the current mortgage crisis, God only knows how dire the situation is going to get.

As with all Gove policies, it was long and comprehensive. It was also delusional

Whilst Rome burns, Gove’s legacy as Home Secretary can best be described as “tinkering at the edges”. The first sign of trouble should have been spotted in 2022, when he released legislation titled the “fairer private rented sector white paper”.

As with all Gove policies, this too was praised. It had headline-grabbing promises, such as that tenants can “share their homes with much-loved pets”, and it was long and comprehensive, giving the impression of turning housing on its head. It was also delusional — arguing that the “majority of tenants enjoy safe and secure rentals” and that the paper would “redress the balance between landlords and 4.4 million private rented tenants” — something that can never happen in a market that is so extremely tipped in landlords’ favour.

Had the Government ever properly tackled the housing crisis, instead of exacerbating it with record immigration levels and anaemic house-building rates, the fact is that we would never have needed this legislation in the first place. Tenants would have never required legislation proving their right not to be killed, or have mould lingering too long next to their sleeping space, or their right to own a budgie. Heaven forbid they may even be able to buy a place.

Far from being a Mortar Martyr, Gove and the Government routinely fob tenants off. Even his department — for “Levelling Up, Housing and Communities” — is an insult to renters, as it turns the housing crisis into a vague and elusive wider portfolio — even though it is perhaps the biggest issue affecting adults’ quality of life and decimating the economy.

Like many I once praised Gove, too, albeit for his educational reforms. After these housing policies, I am not so sure. There seems to be something a bit “Emperor’s New Gove” about it all.

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