Say what you like about the secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities, but Michael Gove certainly hasn’t been idle.
In the nine months since he took the job, he has blazed a bright trail that has left very few of the many stones in DLUHC’s large domain unturned.
Most significantly, he has dismantled the hated Jenrick planning proposals. Less well appreciated is that he has replaced them with a regime that looks remarkably like the one we have now but even more slanted toward preserving the status quo.
During the second-reading debate on the Levelling Up Bill currently making its way through the Commons, he suggested that the Planning Inspectorate might have been tougher on local authorities than ministers had wished. While admitting the Inspectorate had simply been following government policy, he declared that ministers would “make sure that even as we democratise and digitise the planning system, we are in a position to make sure that the Planning Inspectorate ensures not that every plan fits a procrustean bed, but that every plan reflects what local communities believe in”.
For those readers whose classical Greek is a tad rusty, a procrustean bed is a scheme or pattern into which someone or something is arbitrarily forced. You’re welcome.
The serious point here is that Gove really is winding back the strong pro-growth agenda set by Cameron and Osborne more than a decade ago. In a nutshell, it will inevitably mean less housing.
Having told us continually at least until now that building hundreds of thousands of new, mainly affordable homes was a massive priority for the government, Gove is quietly and utterly cynically reassuring his party’s political base that if they don’t like more houses nearby they will be significantly more able to say no. “More community engagement” is a clever way of saying Nimby rules, OK.
This will no doubt please voters in the home counties who certainly need reminding why, when faced with the least palatable choice between the two main parties in a generation, they might stick with the Tories. It does, however, also underline the sharp difference his newly renamed department was created to eliminate.
The so-called red-wall seats – the ones that hadn’t voted anything but Labour for decades until former leader Jeremy Corbyn and shadow Brexit secretary Kier Starmer turned them off so enthusiastically – are the ones where demand for more decent housing is strongest. So much, after all the hype, for levelling up.
While planning is clearly the most significant impact of Gove’s tenure so far, let us not forget his forcing large developers, some kicking and screaming blackmail, to commit several billion to fund cladding remediation.
His innovative proposal to force landlords of retail units vacant for more than a year to offer them in a public auction, so they are at least seen to be in use rather than left boarded up and covered in graffiti, is actually genuinely innovative, and in truth it’s hard to see a downside for owners.
And most of all, Gove recognises that the greatest divide between the political parties is belief in aspiration. Thatcher, for whom it was a byword, first delivered the right to buy. Her unwillingness to allow councils to keep receipts so they could reinvest in new social housing fatally damaged the brand, but the concept of a whole new cadre of property owners who will never otherwise be able to pass a significant asset on to their children is one that will really resonate in that red wall and way beyond.
The present Labour leadership tends to equivocate on many current issues – as shown by its unwillingness to take a side in the current rail dispute. We see the same equivocation on the virtue of aspiration. Gove knows that if anything can save this government, it is where voters can see that difference and know which side they are on.
Steve Norris is chairman of Soho Estates and Future-Built