Meet the minister
Earlier this month Mark Prisk was handed the housing brief in a cabinet reshuffle. So who is the media shy minister and what are his views on the sector? Keeping his his hard hat firmly on, he gives Nick Duxbury just five minutes to find out
I am in bed with new housing minister Mark Prisk - and I have five minutes to make the most of it.
To be clear, we are sitting on a bed in a show room of a new Berkeley Homes development in Croydon, south London. The room is furnished along a strict colour theme of several (not quite 50) shades of grey; a gun metal grey blanket on the bed, a granite-grey giant head board resting against a lighter tarmac-grey wall. It is hard to imagine Mr Prisk’s more colourful predecessor Grant Shapps agreeing to an interview in these monochrome surroundings.
The intimacy of our meeting might be accidental - ITV are setting up in the next room so we have been bundled into the smaller bedroom - but the setting is calculated. Mr Prisk has been touring the 750-home Saffron Square development because it is one of the first to partake in the government’s newbuy mortgage indemnity scheme. More than this, it also hints that the government’s proposed relaxation of planning rules will get more homes built. ‘Croydon Council sat down with the developer and said “if we really want this to happen we are going to have to be more flexible”,’ Mr Prisk explains proudly.
In short, the venue is a message: that he is about delivery of homes rather than rhetoric. Given house building in England has all but collapsed - it fell 11 per cent in the first quarter of 2012 to 24,140 starts - the sector needs a man who is eager to get down to business.
Where Mr Shapps courted media attention, 50-year-old Mr Prisk seems keen to avoid it. He is not a disciple of Twitter, and declined to take questions at the National Housing Federation conference last week. Today he is bedding down with every housing-related magazine in one afternoon, allocating them five minutes each.
His bedside manner is certainly business-like. Having cast aside his high-visibility jacket and hard hat, the former surveyor-turned Tory minister appears every bit the well-heeled free-market pragmatist. He does not refer to social housing once - instead only speaking about the ‘affordable sector’. Despite our intimate setting, his answers are polite and measured, but somewhat evasive.
Asked where he stands on the future of grant funding for developing landlords his answer, or lack thereof, may be a cause for concern.
‘We recognise there is strong role for the government to put funding in - but we are already putting in a substantial amount of money, so the £19.5 billion on affordable housing [the vast majority of which comes from the private sector] is a collaborative venture - but it’s a good chunk of money to make that happen. And it’s supported, of course, by the money we are putting in now for the £10 billion guarantee. Am I saying there will never be any grant in the future? I…’
He pauses - and then opts not to answer his own question, instead restating that his focus is ‘to get more homes built now’.
The dropping of the ‘collaborative’ £19.5 billion figure - which refers to the £4.5 billion the government provided in grant, combined with the remaining £15 billion of investment from landlords - feels spin-heavy. But with just minutes left together, there’s no time to quibble.
On the subject of welfare reform, Mr Prisk professes to be ‘aware of the tensions for some on the affordable side around the issue of direct payment [of benefits to tenants]’. He acknowledges ‘there will always be pinchpoints in these systems’ but says the department is speaking to ‘builders, providers and managers’ to understand where they may be.
Mr Shapps was vocal about his determination to tackle homelessness, yet he left Mr Prisk a legacy of rising homelessness and rough sleeping. Last week, the NHF warned that the number of homeless families being placed in bed and breakfast accommodation for six weeks or more had increased by 44 per cent in a year to 3,960 families between January and March this year. Will he clamp down on councils? The minister states that B&Bs should be used in emergencies only. ‘I want to keep a very close eye on what is happening there so it doesn’t become something that grows into an insurmountable problem,’ he adds decisively, winning a nod of approval from a PR advisor watching us from the doorway.
Cutting red tape
Mr Prisk was known in his previous role as construction minister for his loathing of red tape and describes section 106 agreements - which oblige developers to build affordable homes - as ‘a regulatory burden’ that must be eased to make sites viable. Some of his colleagues in government, such as chancellor George Osborne, have expressed similar views about rules restricting development on the green belt. Indeed, the new planning minister Nick Boles, who, in January, described countryside campaigners as ‘hysterical, scaremongering latter-day Luddites’, was last week forced to state the green belt is ‘safe for now’.
Mr Prisk has fought against development on green belt land in his own constituency of Hertford and Stortford, so where does he stand now? He maintains his view ‘has always been clear’, and is based on whether or not development is sustainable.
‘My view with development - green belt or otherwise - is to ask: “is this sustainable” which will mean in the local plan is it sustainable in the sense of the utilities. If it is, then we have a presumption in favour of it and we go for it. If it’s not then we don’t.’
While Mr Prisk sounds open to the idea of welcoming some development on the green belt as long as it is sustainable, he is equally keen to reiterate the importance of protecting it.
‘Eric Pickles spelled it out clearly, he adds. ‘We’ve not changed any rules. What we have said to councils is “have a look at your land as a whole when you bring your local plans forward, and if you have got a scrapyard, or a quarry in there - in other words, brown field land - think about reusing it, but locally to that locality, think about how you could add to the green belt.’
That doesn’t feel entirely clear. But our time together is over. After a swift handshake, the minister gets up from the bed and is herded from the room. I am left surrounded by shades of grey.
Who is Mark Prisk?
Mark Prisk became an MP in 2001 after working in property development. He was given a shadow front bench role in 2002, and after the 2010 general election because minister of state for business and enterprise at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
In this role he oversaw the construction brief, leading the way on deregulation of the sector. He championed the government’s ‘one in, one out’ approach to red tape, that requires ministers to remove a piece of existing regulation every time they want to create a new rule, and pledged to reduce central procurement costs for the construction sector by 15 to 20 per cent. He established a government Construction Board to deliver on this aim.
He was also involved in work to improve the sustainability of the construction sector, setting up and co-chairing the Green Construction Board, to implement the government’s response to a report on low carbon construction.
In parliament he has been a staunch opponent of development on green belt land, particularly in his Hertfordshire constituency. In 2005 he introduced a private members bill that would have strengthened the protection of green belt land if it had become law.
Read about Mark Prisk’s priorities in his own words, in his first column for Inside Housing