Former housing minister Gavin Barwell says government thinking on homeownership or housing became “completely dysfunctional”.
“I felt that housing policy had got into this weird position where it was a choice between whether you were either pro private housebuilders or you were pro affordable housing,” Barwell said.
In an interview with the Institute for Government, Barwell also reiterated his expectation of appearing as a witness at the Grenfell inquiry and concedes to a “collective failure” in Theresa May not visiting the scene on the first day.
But with his ducking of questions outside 10 Downing Street a defining image of Grenfell’s aftermath, Barwell gave little away over accusations of not acting on a review of building regulations at tower blocks that uncovered serious safety failings following the fatal 2009 Lakanal fire.
Barwell, given a peerage in September, was – along another former housing minister, Brandon Lewis CBE – warned in the Commons he could “potentially be in the dock for corporate manslaughter”, with their inaction in office making the government culpable over the Grenfell disaster.
Last month, Barwell joined the Clarion Group board as a non-executive director.
Of his appointment as housing minister, Barwell said: “One of the things that slightly surprised me about it was, I felt that housing policy had got into this weird position where it was a choice between whether you were either pro private housebuilders or you were pro affordable housing.”
Acknowledging a “perception” that the government was just interested in home ownership and not in other aspects of the policy agenda, Barwell described government thinking about homeownership or housing as “completely dysfunctional”.
He cited he example of the White Paper, saying the process of putting it together was “incredibly difficult and completely byzantine”.
Barwell sees a problems with housing policy in MHCLG not “owning” some of the most important levers.
“So, there’s a whole load of market interventions, Help To Buy being the obvious example, but also some of the housing guarantees, and stamp duty, that are [Treasury] policy leads,” said Barwell.
“And then there’s a whole heap of money being spent by DWP on housing benefit, which I always felt could be spent more productively than it was being spent.
“But you don’t control those policy areas. And certainly, with regard to the Treasury, they have officials who are effectively man-marking each department.
“And I was like, ‘Well, why can’t we just invite them to my meeting, why can’t we get them in the room.’
“And then say, ‘If we’ve got a difference of opinion, let’s argue it out and work out what our position is,’ rather than this slightly weird system where we send something out and then I have to sit and wait until they write me a letter back saying what they think about it.”
The process worked “a little bit better” with Number 10, where Barwell says he and then Communities Secretary Sajid Javid get into “ a slightly difficult relationship” over green-belt issues.
A self-described go-between to back and forth briefing, Barwell found Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s then co-chief of staff, had a “real interest” in housing policy.
“I found him excellent – in terms of what a minister wants from a key prime-ministerial adviser in that situation, he absolutely had it,” said Barwell.
“He had an interest in the issue, he had a mind to engage in the argument, and he had the authority to then, if he did a deal with you, carry that deal through.
“It was harder with the Treasury, because I couldn’t ever actually get face to face with the officials who were giving the advice to the chancellor, to say to them, ‘What is the problem here, and what’s your answer?’
“So, I think that the departmentalisation of government is sometimes frustrating to ministers because it’s not easy to unpick the policy differences,” he said.
Barwell was May’s chief of staff at the time of the Grenfell disaster, saying: “I think we collectively failed the prime minister by not getting her to visit the site on the first day, and she said this herself publicly – she bitterly regretted that she didn’t do that.
“She spent a huge amount of time with survivors afterwards, building up a relationship with them. But the failure to go on that first day was a huge mistake which made the government’s job of responding to a terrible tragedy even more difficult.”
Of his own part, Barwell said he will be “probably” be asked to give evidence to the second phase of the inquiry.
“I faced criticism because I had been the housing minister until just a few weeks before, and the initial policy challenge was profound,” he said.
“I can remember talking to an official in [the then DCLG] who was the expert in this area, and it had begun to become apparent that this material was on the building, which in his mind should not have been on any high-rise building.
“And then it was a question of how quickly can we find out how many other buildings that material is on.”
Barwell continued: “And also, [in] the first stage of the Grenfell review, it is apparent that the cladding was absolutely a critical issue, but it wasn’t the only one.
“This official said to me, ‘This can’t happen unless there’s three or four things that have all gone wrong together.’
“There was a huge initial challenge, not just because you had to try and address the needs of that community and people who had been traumatised and left without a home, but also because of the wider implications for the buildings all across the country that could have this kind of cladding,” he said.
Barwell said he was “very proud” of the White Paper during his time as housing minister.
“I think it is a viable long-term strategy to get housebuilding up to the levels that we need in this country to tackle the housing crisis that we face,” he said.
“And I only wish I’d had more time in the job so I could have overseen its implementation as well as its production.”