Given that we’ve had 12 housing ministers in as many years, it is really very good news that while Chris Pincher, the housing minister in what was MHCLG, has retained his job, his boss is now the one man whose record in three departments – education, justice and DEFRA – is that he has the ability to think laterally and deliver solutions that others are simply not quick enough to grasp.
Michael Gove is quite the cleverest and most able man in government. The fact that he has round the ministerial table Neil O’Brien, by common consent the only MP to match Gove for clarity of thinking and breadth of vision, points to one inescapable conclusion: if this team can’t fix the housing market, nobody can.
Sadly, as I foretold in this column only a few weeks ago, Robert Jenrick’s proposed new deal simply made no political sense and the poor chap has paid the price. Even though he was an early Boris supporter, he now finds himself on the back benches. Sic transit gloria.
Gove has talked about small steps rather than radical change to the planning system, which must surely finally put the lid on the Jenrick zonal proposals that were such anathema to Conservative and Labour councillors alike.
Gove has also been handed the levelling-up agenda. He will have to start by defining what this rather inchoate proposition actually means – and more to the point, how anything can be done that actually achieves something within the limitations of this parliament.
My advice to Gove: forget Help to Buy and concentrate instead on Right to Buy
I have one word of advice for the new secretary of state: forget Help to Buy – which has a time bomb inside it that will explode sooner or later with very sad consequences for many first-time buyers – and concentrate instead on Right to Buy.
This is a huge issue. The key differentiator between the Tories and Labour is that Tories are the party of aspiration, while Labour needs an impoverished electorate to feed its antipathy to wealth. Angela Rayner calling Conservatives scum was utterly stupid, insulting and fatal to Labour’s chances.
Aspiration on the other hand is fundamental to most families, regardless of where they start on the income scale or for whom they traditionally voted.
Owning their own home is something most families naturally aspire to and while Labour continue to oppose the idea, it is a key differentiator in those red wall seats the Tories need to hold on to at the next election.
The first iteration was marred by Thatcher’s insistence that all proceeds of council house sales went back to the Treasury. She simply didn’t trust local authorities not to squander the proceeds, but that is easily remedied by allowing local authorities to keep the proceeds for up to four years, after which they revert to the Treasury but which they would otherwise invest in new affordable housing.
This kills two birds with one stone: more much-needed affordable housing and many more homeowners, often the first ever in their family’s history, to be able to hand something on to their children. If that doesn’t guarantee a Tory vote, I don’t know what will.
Meanwhile, in Manchester, chancellor Dishy Rishi got loud applause for reassuring his audience that the Conservatives were still the party of fiscal prudence. Reckless borrowing and soaring debt were what he called “un-Conservative”. Whether the prime minister can resist the temptation to spend money like a drunken sailor remains to be seen.
And I can report that the Midland hotel, the centre of activity this year, was as rammed as I have ever seen it. Proof if any were needed that political parties, like the rest of us, want to meet in person, to meet old friends and new and socialise as they have not been able to do for a year or more.
And, for what it’s worth, not a mask in sight.
Steve Norris is chairman of Soho Estates and Future-Built