'Good, grown up policymaking': How DLUHC is working to fix 'broken' housing system

Emran Mian talks to Beckie Smith about raising standards in social housing, putting “moral pressure” on landlords, and the importance of partnership working
Emran Mian. Photo: DLUHC

The day before CSW speaks to Emran Mian, Michael Gove has officially branded the UK’s housing model “broken”. “That change is necessary is undeniable,” the housing secretary wrote, by way of introduction to a series of essays proposing solutions.

As director general for regeneration at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Mian leads the government’s work on housing and planning. Bringing about this change represents what Mian understatedly calls “a big old agenda” – in terms of both delivery and legislation.

That agenda includes three bills on their way through parliament – one to support infrastructure around levelling up; another to raise standards and oversight in social housing; and a third on renters’ reform. Meanwhile, the £11.5bn Affordable Homes Programme is two years into its seven-year span, and billions more are being spent on infrastructure to support housing development.  

Potential roadblocks to progress take many forms. Take DLUHC’s priority to improve the supply of housing – or, more simply, to build more houses. Challenges range from local opposition to new developments – which the department hopes to mitigate in part through focusing on quality as well as quantity of housing – to the pressures of inflation and supply-chain challenges which are, as Mian acknowledges, affecting almost all major projects at the moment. 

Another priority is, as Mian puts it, “getting more and more people to a place where the house that they live in is a decent place to live”.

DLUHC oversees and monitors the Decent Homes Standard: a series of minimum requirements for social housing, including providing a “reasonable degree of thermal comfort” and being in a “reasonable state of repair”.

“The positive thing on decency is that the trends have all been in the right direction. The proportion of homes that are not decent has been falling steadily for the past 20 years,” Mian says. But recently, those numbers have plateaued. In 2021, 14% of occupied dwellings in England failed to meet the Decent Homes Standard – 3.4 million in total, just shy of 2020’s 3.5 million.

While the standard is only a regulatory measure for social housing, Mian says the figures show there are “clear and pressing issues” remaining in the private rented sector, where 23% of homes were judged to be “non-decent”. 

DLUHC ran a consultation last year on extending regulation of the Decent Homes Standard to private tenancies. The renters’ reform bill that the government introduced in May would pave the way for enforcement.

But in recent months, the spotlight has fallen on social housing, where one in 10 people were living in non-decent homes in 2021. In January, an inquest found that two-year-old Awaab Ishak had died from a respiratory condition caused by exposure to mould in his home. The inquest heard that Rochdale Boroughwide Housing had failed to act despite Ishak’s father repeatedly raising the issue before the boy’s death in 2020.

The following month, Gove tabled an amendment to the social housing bill, known as Awaab’s Law, which would require social landlords to fix hazards such as damp and mould within strict time limits. DLUHC is planning to publish updated guidance on mould and damp health risks for landlords in England this summer. 

But Mian says plans to tighten regulations have been “in the works for a while”. The bill covers a number of measures set out in the 2020 social housing white paper, which followed the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, and promises to deliver “transformational change” for residents.

“I think what the Awaab Ishak case has shown us is that there have been some particular gaps around the rights of recourse that tenants have in relation to damp and mould, and a lack of responsiveness from some social housing landlords to their tenants,” Mian says. He says government must use “all the possible levers we’ve got” to improve things – including upping the “moral pressure on landlords to do more”.

Effecting change in any area of the housing system means getting a host of external partners on side – from landlords to local authorities and developers. “That’s definitely a big challenge: finding the space to describe what our strategy is, to get people who we think are very sympathetic to it actually engage in it,” Mian says.

“I think Michael Gove is more effective at that – conveying to the widest possible range of people what it is we’re trying to do – than most politicians,” he says. Mian says the housing secretary is a “really powerful” force at DLUHC, having returned in October after a three-month exile from cabinet to “finish the job” he started in 2021. In his first stint as secretary of state, Gove scrapped the government’s previous planning reforms, published the levelling up white paper, and steered the building safety bill through parliament.

“He’s somebody who thinks about this as a system,” Mian says. “He’s not just thinking about one target or one thing; he’s thinking about a set of interconnected things… [that] we need to move to get the outcomes that we want.”

“I think it’s really important for us as civil servants to play our part in that as well,” Mian adds. He says when the Covid response took centre stage, the civil service became “a bit less practised at coming out and saying, ‘These are the things we’re trying to do, these are who our partners are and here’s how we build a coalition for change’”.

“I think the pandemic has eaten into our social capital,” he says, explaining that as large swathes of the civil service and its partner organisations have spent much of their time “in firefighting mode” over the last few years, there have been fewer opportunities for connection.

“I think that’s now shifting back… over the past few months, we have been able to get back to rebuilding some of our social capital,” he says. “But it’s shifting back at a point where we’re quite deep into a parliament and, at least for some of our partner organisations, they’re already beginning to think about what might come next year.

“In civil service terms, there’s a long while to run in this parliament, so we’ve got to stay focused on the task here,” he says – but he adds that this environment means “everything feels just a bit more fragile than you’d want it to be when you’re trying to do some quite ambitious things together".

“Ultimately, if I were to rock up in one of the cities or towns where we rely on having a coalition – say, because we’re funding a big set of projects there or because it’s a really important place for housing development – do our partners 100% get what we’re trying to do? Are they 100% with it? No, I think there’s definitely more to do, because we’ve not been talking to each other as regularly as we should have. We’ve not been confident enough about doing stuff together. [And] everybody’s been under the cosh in terms of cost, inflation and so on.” 

In the push to strengthen those delicate relationships, Mian says DLUHC has been talking “really openly” to its partners about how to support ongoing projects, which sometimes means shifting pre-Covid parameters.

“We’re taking through some changes to our major programmes right now in order to allow our partners to deliver in quite a different environment to the environment in which programmes were initially conceived of,” he says. “I think that’s good, grown-up policymaking and done in partnership, and it just makes people feel that we get it and that we’re backing them to deliver.”

In the spirit of this “grown-up” approach to partnership, Mian DLUHC is putting on a plenary session at Civil Service Live where local authorities, businesses and universities will discuss what it means for the civil service to be ambitious. “It shouldn’t always be people from within the civil service instructing civil servants on how to be ambitious about their role,” he says. “I think there’s so much that people can get from hearing other partners say, ‘Look, this is what I think you should be doing’. We might not be able to do all of it, but I think that is hugely motivating.”

In his four years at DLUHC, Mian says the thing he has heard most frequently from other organisations is that they want to see better coordination between departments. “The classic case will often be a housing project that depends on a transport project happening at the right time and in the right way. It might involve land that is owned or controlled by another department being released for use in the development… and on the face of it, everybody agrees that this should happen. But the processes just aren’t aligned. Everybody’s got a different business case process; everybody’s got a slightly different timeline; everybody’s got a slightly different control process.”

As a result, he says, local authorities and other partners sometimes find themselves “defeated by the complexity” of it all.

But Mian says he has “loads and loads of faith” that these problems can be fixed. “I think these things happen not on the whole because people are doing the wrong thing. I think it’s because people are trying to do their thing,” he says. He adds that it can feel “like a bit of an inconvenience” when another official comes along to ask if a team can do things differently, or in a different sequence – or if a proposal that could save money overall would come at the expense of one department’s budget.

But most tensions – between teams, or between departmental and ministerial objectives – can be resolved, Mian says, by “getting the right people in a room” to understand each other’s processes and perspectives.

Another challenge on Mian’s mind is that staff turnover, especially at the more junior levels, is high. “That always has some positives, but it’s certainly a challenge as well when you’re trying to pull off quite a broad and ambitious agenda,” he says.

One reason, he says, is that people have felt “drawn towards” the urgent projects that have arisen across the civil service in the last couple of years, rather than long-term policy goals. Another is that “pay is quite constrained”, so people seek higher-paid roles either through promotion or outside the civil service.

Public sector pay has always been – as Mian puts it – “different to that in the private sector”. But government has other competitive advantages as an employer – including the social capital that Mian says has taken a hit in recent years. “I think what we’ve always relied on – and these are really powerful things to rely on – is the sense of mission, but also the fact that being in the civil service allows you to work with a set of colleagues that you may not have in another domain, and to gather a coalition of people around you from other organisations too,” he says.

Changing ways of working and the need to tackle immediate priorities has meant “people have gone through a period of experiencing less connection” with both colleagues and external partners, he says. 

But this too is bouncing back. He has made an effort to travel to DLUHC’s offices around the country, both for meetings and informal site visits, while ministers are also meanwhile back on the road “in a big way”, he says.

One symbolic change that Mian has seen since he first joined the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government in 2019 is the department’s rebrand. Boris Johnson christened DLUHC in 2021, two years after coining “levelling up” as his administration’s flagship agenda. But the phrase now appears less often in ministerial speeches than it once did.

Mian says one reason for the recent lack of explosive announcements is that “a lot of the levelling up stuff is now in ‘proper delivery’ [stage]”. He predicts there will be more fanfare when some of the 200-odd projects backed by the capital funding programmes attached to the policy come to fruition.

“A lot of the media commentary and so on tends to be a bit less interested in the phase of ‘getting on and doing stuff’ – other than reporting on when something isn’t working,” he adds wryly. “And so that gives a particular vibe to the delivery stage which is hard to shake off.”

But he says work continues behind the scenes. The affordable-housing programme, for example, is now “much more mindful of where in the country that investment is going” and how that aligns with the levelling up aims.

“Equally, we’re trying to ensure much better coordination between what we’re doing and what the government is trying to do on, say, transport,” he says, “because a really big theme of the levelling up white paper was that levelling up is not about doing one thing in one place.” Add housing improvements to regeneration of the high street and improvements to education and skills, culture and infrastructure “and then suddenly you’re getting somewhere”, he adds.

Mian says government is getting better at the “interconnectedness” needed to move the agenda forward. “There’s definitely more to do, but in terms of coordinating our activities, we’re in a better place than we were at the start of this parliament.” 

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