So, we have a new Secretary of State; a ‘new’ Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC); and a housing minister who has managed to survive for over 18 months, which is quite a record given that we have had over 20 of the blighters since 1997.
Actually, I am slightly more optimistic about Michael Gove than some. He may be a poor dancer, but he is a big-hitter with plenty of political capital; he is articulate and clever, and his back story (adopted at four months by Labour-voting parents) is intriguing. He did some good things as environment secretary (even George Monbiot grudgingly praised him) and he founded Policy Exchange which, despite some awful ideas about selling off social housing, is at least in favour of a mass housebuilding programme and taking on the nimbys.
He was also a shadow housing spokesman between 2005 and 2007 so he knows the territory. When he left university, he applied for a research job at Central Office and was told he was “insufficiently political” and “insufficiently Conservative”, so he became a journalist. This also means that he knows how to tell a good story and how to sell his ideas.
During his 2016 leadership bid he said, “I was so very reluctant (to stand) because I know my limitations. Whatever charisma is, I don’t have it; whatever glamour may be, I don’t think anyone could ever associate me with it. But – at every step in my political life – I’ve asked myself one question: what is the right thing to do? What does your heart tell you?”.
I think the danger for the housing sector is whether his “right thing” will genuinely be the right thing or mere political pragmatism. Despite appearances, I think he has some liberal tendencies, although that might just mean he shifts with the wind. Ministers who are overwhelmed by the noisy minority are not usually much good.
As for social housing, in his 2016 pitch for the leadership he said, “We need a national ambition to build hundreds of thousands of new homes a year, both private and socially-rented – led by someone who will not take no for an answer and who will push for diggers in the ground and homes for all come what may”.
In his 2019 leadership pitch he was not explicit about social housing but said, “Everyone has the right to own their home”, and he pledged to “reform planning laws in order that more homes are built”, to tackle the abuses of the big volume housebuilders (in not releasing land) and to make it “easier for communities to build beautiful homes”. In fact, the whole Create Streets and building beautiful homes stuff seems to originate with Gove, who has been banging on about it since 2013 at least.
But the fact remains that he is the MP for an anti-growth Surrey seat where he has personally opposed a large housing development of 50 homes (around half were affordable). At the planning inquiry, which he attended in a personal capacity, he made it clear that he supported more housebuilding – just not this specific scheme (the cry of nimbys everywhere). One of his first actions at MHCLG/DLUHC was to abolish the proposed planning reforms, even though they came straight out of the Policy Exchange manual.
This contradiction between what Gove says and what he does seems to me to be reflected in Conservative policy more generally.
For example, they want to build beautiful homes but they relax planning controls and allow, via permitted development rights, offices and shops to be converted into homes, often with disastrous outcomes: ugly, small, poorly located, and not fit for habitation.
They want to build 300,000 homes a year yet they constantly cave in to self-interested home-owning nimbys who want no building anywhere. They want a mass housebuilding programme and yet they scrap proposals to reform the planning system and do nothing to deal with the restrictions of the green belt and other wasted land (golf courses, pony paddocks) that add to land prices and stoke house price inflation.
They do not tackle the housebuilding cartels. They want everyone to have the chance of owning their own home, yet they pump billions into schemes like the Help to Buy that inflate house prices. They want to revive high streets, yet promote planning policies that create out of town shopping centres and refuse to tax the online retail giants who are helping to destroy the high street.
As for levelling up, they propose to put in about £5bn but central funding of local government has been cut by more than £10bn since 2010. And it is not just a case of poor north suffering at the expense of rich south. If you look at government deprivation data, there are pockets of extreme deprivation in the south east (Margate, parts of London, Hastings, and Jaywick, officially England’s most deprived place) and pockets of relative affluence in the north – off the top of my head, Alnwick, Harrogate, York, and Durham. So, the whole levelling up agenda seems to be more about votes than hard facts.
To conclude, if we are faced with years of Conservative government I would rather have Gove than Jenrick (who was rather disliked by Conservative Home voters). He faces a plethora of challenges – not least sorting out the catastrophic cladding scandal, steering through the Building Safety legislation, confronting the housebuilders, stopping the dire wastage of funds on Help to Buy, reforming the planning system in a way that will not upset the Tory heartlands too much, and bringing forward social housing reform. Not to mention investment in new homes. Whether he will do the ‘right thing’ by social housing, or just the politically expedient thing, we shall have to wait and see.
(This blog was first published by the Housing Quality Network on 22nd September 2021)