James Brokenshire is the third secretary of state with responsibility for local government and housing since Eric Pickles left office in May 2015 – and the seventh since David Miliband took over the equivalent role in May 2005. There have been just four chancellors of the Exchequer and four prime ministers since 2005.
Such rapid ministerial turnover in a department tells us something about the importance governments attach to its role. Whatever the constitutional merits of an effective system of local government and however important housing is to contemporary public policy, the need for continuity is sacrificed to the 24-hour news cycle’s demand for new ministers. A misapplied ‘hostile environment’ immigration policy at the Home Office leads to the arrival of new leadership at Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government.
James Brokenshire is, by common consent, a parliamentarian who is respected across the House of Commons. He has been secretary of state for Northern Ireland, a difficult job which he handled well. He has an outer-city constituency which will give him insights into the increasingly important politics of delivering a rational Brexit while simultaneously responding to inner-city and younger voters’ need for more housing.
Sajid Javid had raised the stakes in relation to increasing house-building. If there is to be a significant increase in housing numbers, MHCLG will have to be ready for a fight with a series of vested interests, notably the house-builders and Conservative-supporting NIMBYs in suburban and green belt-fringe areas.
Against the backdrop of last week’s local elections, the new secretary of state will also have to navigate the increasingly complex politics of Britain, where traditional Labour areas are drifting towards the Conservatives, but Labour is the dominant party of inner cities and university constituencies. The electorate is fragmenting because of Brexit, identity politics and the demise of traditional tribal politics.
Mr Brokenshire is also minister for ‘communities’. If any department of state had responsibility for attempting to ensure there is a strengthening of national and civic spirit, it is surely MHCLG. At the very least, a series of poisonous culture wars need to be avoided. The department has much to deliver, but within a government which has very little capacity to deliver much apart from Brexit.
Tony Travers, director, LSE London