As the dust settles on (another) Tory Leadership contest and Liz Truss emerges victorious, attention turns to the new cabinet. And amongst the high-profile demotions and political musical chairs, we have a new housing secretary – the fourth this year.
Taking the hot seat is Teeside MP, Simon Clarke, replacing Greg Clark (confusing, eh?) who lasted just two months in the role. Mr Clarke has been named, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. Typically, we’d expect a specialist Housing Minister to be appointed alongside Mr Clarke but, as of yet, it’s unclear whether that role will continue to exist.
But who is Simon Clarke? And, most importantly, what can conveyancers and the housing market expect from him?
Who Is Simon Clarke?
Hailing from Warwickshire, Clarke stood in the 2015 general election as the Conservative candidate for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, eventually losing to then Labour MP Tom Blenkinsop. But he returned victorious in the fateful 2017 general election, winning the seat from Labour.
Since then, Clarke has had stints as Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury and Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government. As part of the 2021 September Reshuffle, Mr Clarke became the youngest cabinet minister in government after being appointed Chief Secretary to the Treasury.
So, despite his relatively young age for politics, just 37, in Clarke we appear to be getting an experienced operator. It’s also important to note he has some experience in the housing sector, serving in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government in 2020.
But what about his politics, in particular towards housing? Well, Clarke has been a vocal supporter of regeneration projects in the North East. In May of 2022, he tweeted it would be a “disaster for the Conservatives” if “we do not build the homes we need, where we need them”.
Unusually for a Conservative, Clarke has also been very outspoken on climate change. He’s spoken out against fellow Conservatives who’ve claimed that net-zero should be placed on the back burner due to the energy crisis, going so far as to describe it as “positively irrational.”
What Can Conveyancers Expect?
We’ve established that Simon Clarke has principles and at least some background in housing, but what does any of this mean for the housing sector?
First, let’s deal with some positives. Clarke’s outspoken support of ‘levelling-up’ could be a boost to the country’s flagging new-build programme. In rhetoric at least, Clarke has proven himself a staunch supporter of building more houses, particularly in those areas in most desperate need. This can only be good for the housing market, given its difficulties in matching supply with demand – particularly for first-time buyers.
On top of this, his backing of net zero is interesting. It’s no secret that the UK’s housing stock is woefully insulated, which is bad in more stable times but potentially disastrous in an energy crisis. What’s more, terrible EPC ratings devalue plenty of otherwise decent housing stock. It’s clear something needs to be done; could Clarke be the man to do it?
Now for some slightly more downbeat predictions. Unfortunately, Clarke has one of the most daunting in-trays of any government minister. Alongside the problems with homebuilding, he also faces a rampant homelessness crisis and a rental sector on its knees. It remains to be seen how much space this leaves for an ambitious homebuilding or insulation project.
Then we have the views of Prime Minister, Liz Truss. Truss has repeatedly expressed an ideological distaste for “Soviet top-down housing targets.” It’s not completely clear what that means yet and it’s probably worth treating it more as red meat for the Tory base rather than a cast iron proclamation. Nevertheless, we can probably assume that the government’s target of building 300,000 homes per year by 2025 is likely to be altered, if not scrapped.
So, what can we conclude? Well, for all his principles, Clarke is still a member of what looks to be one of the most ideologically committed governments in a generation, beset by crisis. So the smart money is on housebuilding ticking along at much the same level it has done for much of the last decade. It’s not what the housing market needs but for the time being, at least, don’t expect radical change.