Earlier this week, Robert Jenrick was sacked from his role as the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities, and Local Government.
At two years, one month, and 22 days, the length of Jenrick’s tenure puts him slightly above average compared with his predecessors – longer than the 14 months of Greg Clark, but not quite the same distance as the five years served by Eric Pickles during the Cameron administration.
There’s no telling how long his replacement will last, but as one exits and another enters, perhaps it’s time to consider how much the now former Housing secretary achieved during his time in office.
Robert Jenrick was thrust into the job of Housing secretary in July 2019, seemingly affirming his status as a ‘rising star’ among the Conservative ranks. Although his name was unfamiliar to many in housing at the time, and with little hitherto experience of sector issues, the MP for Newark faced some pretty big challenges from the off.
The foremost of these was the extant building safety crisis, an issue Jenrick referred to as “an appalling situation” in an interview with The Guardian. It took nearly a year for the government, under Jenrick’s purview, to formally announce its £1bn Building Safety Fund. On the surface, this may have seemed like a step in the right direction; however, the announcement quickly came under fire when it became clear that the funding would not be able to sufficiently cover all buildings that required remediation works – i.e. buildings above 18 metres in height wrapped in dangerous non-aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding.
Following this criticism, the government announced it would be allocating an extra £3.5bn to carry out remediation works, with the fund now totalling more than £5bn. A not unsubstantial amount, yet the frustration and furore surrounding the building safety crisis rages on.
Questions, too, will be asked of Jenrick’s decision to require all building owners to submit EWS1 forms – designed to assess the potential financial impact of cladding on high-rise flats – for all blocks regardless of height.
In July this year, after more than a year since it was introduced, Jenrick revealed that he would be dropping the requirement for buildings below 18 metres in height (or around six stories tall). The U-turn was welcomed by many, as the requirement had seen thousands of leaseholders unable to sell their properties.
Building safety wasn’t the only big issue sitting heavy in Jenrick’s in-tray, with his campaign to overhaul the planning system also dominating much of his time in office.
The former secretary had struggled to gain acceptance for the biggest shake-up of the planning system for 70 years, which would have seen large parts of the UK opened up for new development. His proposals have been seen by many Tories as largely responsible for the party’s defeat in the Chesham and Amersham by-election, with some going so far as to attribute the failure to his recent sacking.
Jenrick had been expected to publish his long-awaited and allegedly Planning Bill this week. After facing opposition for some Tory MPs, the bill – which had been formulated to help the government meet its manifesto pledge of building 300,000 homes a year – was expected to be a more ‘watered-down’ version of the original drafts, according to The Times.
While Jenrick’s proposed Planning Bill had been met with stark defiance, it was under his oversight that the government expanded permitted development rights (PDR), which allow certain building works and changes of use to be carried out without having to make a planning application.
The changes allowed for more buildings to be converted to homes, seemingly helping to meet the growing demand for housing. However, as these homes weren’t required to meet the same standards as those that had gone through the full planning process, the reality meant many PDR homes were unsuitable for living in. Some reports found that the expansion of PDR had resulted in some people living in shipping containers.
Following heavy criticism of the reforms, Jenrick announced that all new PDR homes would have to meet strict national space and daylight requirements. The announcement was well received by many, with the then Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) president Alan Jones saying he was “delighted and relieved”.
It was also under Jenrick’s incumbency that the sector came under fire for a number of high-profile cases of tenant neglect and maladministration.
Earlier in the year, an ITV investigation found that some Croydon Council residents were housed in inadequate living conditions. A subsequent investigation found that the council had been operating under “a lack of capacity and competence” and “a lack of care and respect for residents”. At the time, Jenrick said he was “appalled by what has occurred”.
A more recent ITV investigation found tenants of a number of other councils, as well as housing associations such as L&Q and Clarion, were living in “squalor” – findings blasted by the MHCLG as “completely unacceptable”.
Speaking just last week at the annual CIH Housing conference, Jenrick made a point of addressing the revelations that had emerged over the course of the pandemic. “There are a small minority who give the name of the sector a bad image,” he said, adding that “the vast majority do a very good job for your tenants”.
At the same conference, Jenrick called out the “excessive” pay of some housing association heads. “It is clear there needs to be changes,” he said, adding that he would like to see a “renewal of the ideals of the pioneers” of the sector.
Yet, Jenrick himself hasn’t exactly been a stranger to financial scandal. Just last year, it had emerged had approved a £1bn development in Tower Hamlets to be carried out by the company of wealthy Conservative donor Richard Desmond.
Jenrick’s decision saw Desmond get away with paying no affordable housing. Soon after, texts came to light that showed Desmond pushing for a quick resolution in order to avoid “giving the Marxists [Tower Hamlets Council] loads of doe for nothing.”
Jenrick had also come under fire over the allocation of the £3.6bn Towns Fund, which the Public Accounts Committee ruled was “not impartial”. The panel of MPs found the distribution of cash – set up to help financially challenged towns – was heavily skewed towards Tory constituencies, with Jenrick’s own receiving £25m in funding.
Jenrick’s two-year stint as Housing Secretary will be remembered by many as controversial, one marked by scandal and blunder. Yet, he doesn’t leave office completely bereft of merit. While the homeless crisis might again be rearing its head, the former secretary was praised at the start of the pandemic for his efforts to get ‘everyone in’. And although his methods of increasing the supply of homes were often seen as ill conceived, or even ill advised, few can deny his determination to help the country produce the homes it needs.
National Housing Federation CEO Kate Henderson was among those sharing her thanks for Jenrick’s service to the sector.
In a statement on Twitter, she said: “Thank you @RobertJenrick for working with housing associations on so many issues – from tackling homelessness during the pandemic to funding for much needed new social homes. Wishing you all the best for the future.”
Are you a social housing professional? Sign up for a FREE MEMBERSHIP to upload news stories, post job vacancies, and connect with colleagues on our secure social feed.