New housing and planning minister urged to get on with implementing white paper

A former junior minister in the Foreign Office has been appointed to replace Gavin Barwell as the new housing and planning minister in the UK.

Alok Sharma, the MP for Reading West, will take on the ministerial role in the Department for Communities and Local Government, with the announcement coming almost a week after the general election which saw Barwell lose his seat.

Sharma’s appointment was welcomed by the industry amid hopes that he will be in the job for some time as in recent years the minister has changed frequently giving rise to concerns that the Government has not always taken the sector as seriously as others.

He takes over the job at a critical time with the Government having promised a million new homes by 2020 and another half a million by the end of 2022 was put in the Conservative election manifesto but with a hung parliament there will be no indication until the publication of the Queen’s Speech whether that pledge will be carried forward.

There are concerns that with the Government having to rely in the support of the DUP to govern and Brexit negotiations beginning, housing could slip down the political agenda. Sharma is the third housing minister in three years.

Barwell had a key part in putting the White Paper together which was widely welcomed by the property and construction industries. It is hoped that Sharma will take it forward as soon as possible.

The Federation of Master Builders (FMB) urged the new minister to focus on implementing the many strong proposals in the White Paper quickly. ‘Sharma assumes the role at a critical juncture for the delivery of the Government’s ambitious target to build 1.5 million homes between 2015 and 2022,’ said FMB chief executive Brian Berry.

‘Vital to this will be ensuring that the recommendations within the 2017 Housing White Paper, that aim to diversify the supply of new homes and revitalise the SME house building sector, are delivered in full. The previous housing minister Gavin Barwell deserves credit for his work in pushing forward a wide range of reforms, including those designed to tackle some of the barriers to growth faced by smaller scale builders, and we hope that Sharma can build on this legacy,’ he pointed out.
‘That the Conservative Party’s manifesto opened up the possibility of local authorities taking a more active role in house building suggests that the Government was still open to new and radical approaches to solving the housing crisis. It would be a shame if such radicalism was now dropped in light of a hung Parliament. We look forward to working closely with the new Minister, whose experience in the Treasury should hold him in excellent stead for the challenges ahead,’ he added.

The Residential Landlords Association said it hopes that Sharma will reflect positively on the contribution that the private rented sector and the majority of landlords can make in tackling the housing crisis.

‘Through better enforcement of regulations to root out criminal landlords, pro-growth taxation and a planning system that frees up small plots of unused public sector land for new homes we can ensure that the sector meets the needs of those who rely on the sector for a place to live,’ said RLA chairman Alan Ward.

Peter Williams, executive director of the Intermediary Mortgage Lenders Association (IMLA), urged the new minister to look at having a joined-up policy across all housing tenures. ‘With talk turning to the need for cross party agreement and a common approach to negotiating Brexit, it would surely make sense to adopt a similar consensual, non-partisan approach to determining housing policy to put the UK property market on a more stable footing for the long term,’ he said.

The Country Landowners Association (CLA) said there will be much for the new minster to tackle. ‘The Government has a big role to play in helping to boost the provision of homes across our rural communities. We look forward to working with the minister to bring forward innovative policy ideas that will help rural landowning businesses unlock the potential of land and assets,’ said CLA president Ross Murray.

The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) said urged the new minister to take on board the need for affordable homes to be built in the right places, with the appropriate infrastructure and services. ‘These are key priorities for the new minister,’ said RTPA president Stephen Wilkinson.

‘The RTPI has a long history of working closely with previous ministers and looks forward to working with the new one to ensure planners continue to play a central role in delivery. We will be writing to Sharma to seek a meeting with him as soon as possible, to discuss planning’s role in delivery and the implementation of the measures contained within the Housing White Paper published earlier this year,’ he added.

Sharma, who was born in India and is trained chartered accountant, retained the seat in the election but his majority was reduced from 6,550 to 2,876. He has worked in corporate finance for Nikko Securities and Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken.

Last July he became Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and has been a member of the Science and Technology Select Committee and the Treasury Select Committee.

In his political career he has voted in favour of HS2 and charging market rents to high earning council house tenants. Sharma is not known to have any background in housing.

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