A committee of MPs has endorsed the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s decision to nominate one of Conservative Party leadership favourite Boris Johnson’s former deputy London mayors as the government's housing ombudsman.
Richard Blakeway worked on Johnson’s first campaign to become London mayor in 2008, before being appointed deputy mayor for housing, land and property. He served again during Johnson’s second term from 2012, and later became a No.10 Policy Unit adviser under then-prime minister David Cameron.
MPs on parliament's Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee last week approved MHCLG's nomination of Blakeway to the ombudsman role, which took three rounds of recruitment to find a candidate MHCLG was happy with. The position has been filled with interim appointments since Denise Fowler resigned in June 2017 to become chief executive of Women’s Pioneer Housing.
The committee’s endorsement came after an hour-long pre-appointment grilling in which MPs quizzed Blakeway on his political leanings and MHCLG’s belief that his current roles represent a conflict of interest for an ombudsman. At present, Blakeway is a non-executive director of MHCLG non-departmental public body Homes England, chair of the London Borough of Bexley’s housing company, and director of a consultancy.
Blakeway told the committee that it had been “some considerable length of time” since he had been active in a political party.
And he added: “I didn’t work on the Conservative Party’s manifesto. That wasn’t something that I did.
“I worked on international development and was a commissioner on a policy review that was looking at the role of DfID and other things.
“The roles that I have performed have been politically restricted. I’ve taken that incredibly seriously and I’ve acted in a way that enforces that.”
Blakeway said he had “worked incredibly productively with people from across the political spectrum, whether at a local level or a national level” and believed the impartiality and independence of the watchdog role was “critical”.
“I’ve worked with Labour-controlled authorities. I’m working with a London borough where I’m supporting them on their regeneration work,” he said.
“With the exception of working for Boris Johnson on his first mayoral campaign, I haven’t done that much political work.
“I did some policy work in his policy team. I covered housing and planning – hence why I ended up working at the [Greater London Authority] after that campaign; I did some work around environment policy; and I did some work on a whole collection of things which were called quality of life. The majority of my time was spent on housing and planning.”
MPs asked Blakeway why he did not apply to be housing ombudsman when it recruitment first opened in 2017 or again in 2018.
He answered that the third round of recruitment, which launched in January, had felt like the right time for a new job to get “stuck into”.
He said he did not agree with MHCLG's assessment that his jobs at BexleyCo and Homes England were a conflict of interest.
“The regulatory function of Homes England had separated from the [Homes and Communities] Agency last year,” Blakeway said.
Of the London borough's housing ccompany, he said: “Bexley is not a stock-owning authority, it’s a stock-transfer authority. Therefore, it isn’t one of the housing authorities that comes under the scheme… and then the commercial work I do, none of them are members of the scheme.
“I’m not doing any work with housing associations, for example. But I completely take the point that the department made.”
Blakeway said that were he appointed as housing ombudsman, he would “certainly resign” from Homes England and BexleyCo and terminate his consultancy contracts.
The committee’s endorsed Blakeway on the condition that he resign from his Homes England and BexleyCo roles and ensure that Tudor Blakeway Consultants was inactive during the period of his appointment.
In their report on the recruitment process, MPs said they were “disappointed” that MHCLG had failed to consult them on the proposed selection process prior to the start of the recruitment campaign.
They added that the department had also failed to send them all the information set out in Cabinet Office guidance on pre-appointment hearings seven days before the session was due to take place.
“We expect the department to take appropriate measures to ensure it has the required capacity to meet the requirements set out in Liaison Committee and Cabinet Office guidance for pre-appointment hearings,” they said.