Earlier this month, Boris Johnson’s took a sledgehammer to his cabinet. In the reshuffle Michael Gove took up the gauntlet as Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, after Robert Jenrick was sacked following a series of blunders.
It’s a tough remit. Where we live is not just about square footage: it shapes who we are; it’s about our career prospects, our leisure activities, our productivity and ultimately our health. It determines how we travel every day and, as a result, our carbon footprint.
In the UK, affordable accommodation has become a scarce asset, especially in densely populated cities like London.
The government plans to see this off with a pledge to build 300,000 new homes a year. But it is not as easy as it sounds. All eyes have been trained on the government’s white paper “Planning for the Future” since it was published last August. The document outlines remarkable changes to the planning system, including a simplification of local plans and building permissions. And Gove will need to adapt this pre-existing plan or look at a root-and-branch overhaul.
The protection given to homeowners in the plans for social care reforms shows how important the issue of housing is as a vote influencer. Gove needs to reassure the Conservative heartlands that the agenda for levelling up won’t come at their expense.
For many in the world of housing, Gove’s appointment is promising. Matthew Spry, Senior Director and Head of the London Office at Lichfields, said the new Secretary was “probably the best” he could have envisaged.
As Shadow Planning and Housing Spokesman under David Cameron, Gove was an advocate for radical reform – an easier task from the opposition benches. “He was saying that it’s important to protect green spaces in urban areas, even if that means building on greenfield land.” He was also opposed to top-down housing targets.
Last December the now demoted Jenrick found himself in hot water with a Whitehall algorithm created to make definitive decisions on housing. After a fierce internal row within the Conservatives, the project was abandoned; South-East Tory constituencies were terrified their towns would be drowned in concrete. Jenrick’s plan had plenty of pitfalls, not least the fact that delegating decisions regarding local communities to an algorithm was seen as heartless.
Addressing the concerns of people who are politically and socially diametrically opposed is Gove’s primary challenge. On one side, will be the pleas of young students and professionals who struggle to make it to the end of the month on meagre salaries. According to 2020 figures, the average private rent in London was £342 pounds per week, and the proportion of income spent on rent amounted to 42 per cent.
On the other side of the divide will be the environmental groups. When he was Environment Secretary Gove had to build strong relationships with the same groups now lobbying hard to protect green belt land.
Tom Fyans, Deputy Chief Executive at the Countryside Charity, said Gove’s record as a reformer would help: “The Department for Housing has often been defined as ‘the department that didn’t get the memo on the climate emergency’.” The planning system needs to be reformed with an eye on sustainable development, he said.
The green belt was created to avoid urban sprawl. These protected parts of the countryside are a tempting sacrifice to the government’s 300,000 new homes-a-year target. One suggested solutions is “button development”. This means building only in green belt areas surrounding train stations. According to Anthony Breach, of the Centre for Cities, this could free up space for around 2 million houses.
Gove has green belt territories in his Surrey Heath constituency – so he understands the dilemma. There are three options: build on it in a way that tries to keep core Tory voters onside, turn to brownfield land, or follow the political formula of opposing development in his constituency, but let local authorities build anyway. Spry calls this the “tried and tested” method of passing the buck.
Gove needs to be ready for the challenge of managing different factions. His Whitehall ministry has been given a rebrand in anticipation: it is now the Department for Levelling up, Housing and Communities – the “local government element has entirely disappeared. He’s now firmly at the centre of the promised levelling up agenda.