The sixth housing minister in seven years has had a difficult start. But what do we know about Alok Sharma? Photography: Press Association
On the afternoon of 13 June, when the post-election reshuffle had left just one ministerial post unfilled, the social housing sector was preparing for the now familiar routine of greeting a new housing minister.
Several potential names were circulating on the Twitter rumour mill, but no one guessed the identity of the man who would eventually fill the role: Alok Sharma, MP for Reading West and previously minister for Asia and the Pacific.
In some ways, the surprise was no surprise. He was the latest in a long line of housing ministers with no previous experience in housing. Since 2012 and the end of long-serving shadow housing minister Grant Shapps’ two-year stint in the actual job, the position has quite famously become a pit-stop.
No one could have guessed that he would immediately face the biggest social housing disaster in this country’s history. Just nine hours after he was appointed, flames tore through Grenfell Tower in Kensington, killing at least 80 people.
Since then, everyone in the housing sector – not least Mr Sharma – has been kept busy, and there has been little space for assessing the credentials of the sixth housing minister in seven years of Conservative rule.
So what do we know about Alok Sharma?
The first point one housing association chief executive makes is that he has big shoes to fill. His predecessor Gavin Barwell lasted only 10 months in the role before losing his Croydon Central seat during Jeremy Corbyn’s surge in London. But the sector warmed to him in this time.
“He [Mr Barwell] is a very bright man, a very intelligent bloke who got to grips with his brief with a speed that I’ve never seen before in a politician,” says the chief executive.
Mr Sharma will have to show similar quick thinking if he is to get up to speed. He is a business-minded politician, having been a chartered accountant, an investment banker, and the chair of the economic affairs committee at Conservative thinktank The Bow Group. Notably absent from his resume, however, are housing-related political appointments or professional engagements. This has prompted scepticism.
“The message that the government is sending out is that it’s a junior post for somebody who they want to reward.
“If you go onto Alok Sharma’s website, the only thing you can find about housing is how he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with people trying to stop development happening in his constituency. It’s not that we need an experienced housing manager, but surely we want somebody who has professed an interest in it and wants the job for more than his political career.”
The Reading West MP does indeed have a history of opposing development in his local area – most notably plans to build 750 homes at Pincents Hill in Reading.
Seven years ago, when Reading West had a Labour MP, Pincents Lane was a rather diseased industrial estate, with a bowling alley that was going out of business and a car park with enough weeds to make it more park than car. Kids from the local schools played with abandoned shopping trolleys on the broken tarmac and shattered bottles of vodka littered the overgrown verges.
Two years before the 2010 general election, a sustainable development company called Blue Living, now renamed Beyond Green, bought the land and the hill overlooking it, proposing “a sustainable new community” – Pincents Hill – which would provide 750 new homes. This contentious proposal would provide a crucial political background for Alok Sharma’s nascent political career.
A source connected to the Pincents Hill development explains: “Historically, part of the land was a disused golf course. It was a greyfield site, you might say – by Junction 12 on the M4. There was a poorly resolved business park there, and it’s on an urban fringe which, like many British towns, is sort of fragmented.
“I think we handled it badly, in that we made it look like we’d made our minds up about what this should be and we were inviting people to come and see how smart we were and agree with us.
“Local campaigners on environmental grounds got organised very quickly. They were very successful in making us seem like crass, commercial developers. Alok appeared at one of the events – in a marginal constituency (there was a Labour MP at that time, who was retiring) – and that became a key part of his platform.”
In November 2009, as the general election loomed, he told a public meeting: “My position is absolutely clear. I am totally opposed to this development and want us to retain the green space at Pincents Hill and maintain the very important strategic gap between Tilehurst and Theale.
“Local residents are rightly concerned about the prospect of up to 900 homes being dumped at their back door and the resulting impact on local traffic, on public services such as healthcare and education, on the environment and wildlife and the loss of a valuable green space.”
The Pincents Hill source recalls a “wry smile” crossing their face when Mr Sharma’s appointment was announced. “I felt at the time that it was a populist, partial agenda that he was promoting rather than the mature, strategic, political perspective that you’d expect from a prospective head of department in government.
“[His intervention] made a very significant difference, and it gave him a single issue to campaign on. He seized on it very quickly. He’s very adept politically, if the purpose of politics is short-term gain.”
Mr Sharma has opposed other housing developments in Reading. He has fought the construction of homes on four other sites throughout the borough. One Labour councillor also tells Inside Housing: “I hope he will come and engage with us on the housing agenda now that he’s got that portfolio, with a greater understanding of what’s needed.
“It’s been a nightmare to have a dialogue with him about anything, really. I find him quite superficial. If somebody brings an issue to his attention that he thinks will criticise the council he immediately leaps to print and a photoshoot.
“When we’ve written to him or tried to arrange meetings, he’s tended to bat it off. He’s been very difficult to engage with on quite a lot of agendas. We’ll have another go. We’re always willing to try and we hope that he’ll come and listen to our experience of why government policy has made it more difficult to build more affordable housing in Reading.”
Responding to these criticisms, Alok Sharma said in a statement: “Through our Neighbourhood Planning Act, we have put power in the hands of local people to decide where development gets built.
“We are also giving local authorities the tools they need to make sure that plans, carefully developed in consultation with the community, are implemented, with necessary infrastructure like roads and energy networks in place to support these new homes. Our Housing Infrastructure Fund will do just that, providing local authorities with the funding to support vital infrastructure projects.”
There are surely battles, and policy decisions, to come where Mr Sharma will have to soften his tough position on new developments. He is, after all, the man tasked with developing 250,000 new homes a year.
But the challenges Alok Sharma has faced in his first two months as housing minister have been very different. He has been harangued by Piers Morgan over cladding materials, lambasted by councils for equivocating over fire safety funding and targeted personally by ‘Justice for Grenfell’ protesters.
A month ago, he choked back tears in parliament as he described “the most humbling and moving experience of his life”. The new housing minister had just met survivors of the devastating Grenfell Tower fire and as he described their “unimaginable pain”, his voice trembled with emotion.
This shows, perhaps, the man’s empathy with former residents of Grenfell Tower, but it is the months ahead that will reveal whether he has the capacity to solve both their problems and the wider problems with affordable housing across the UK.