I’ve always thought of housing secretary Michael Gove as one of the brightest men in politics. He is credited with radically reforming the Department of Education. He did great work at the Department of Justice, putting right many of his predecessor Chris Grayling’s catastrophic mistakes. And in his time at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, he managed to turn a graveyard department into one in which he was personally well regarded by all sides. 

Steve Norris

Steve Norris

So Gove is no fool, a brilliant writer, a persuasive speaker and a significant force in politics. He has previously shown that behind his mild manner lies a cold, calculating mind.

He (metaphorically speaking) stabbed Boris Johnson in the front the day before Johnson was to declare his candidacy for prime minister. Despite such glaring disloyalty, he has spent most of the past six years since former prime minister David Cameron’s resignation in the cabinet.

Trusted by few and feared by many, he has been at the centre of virtually all the machinations that have convulsed our nation’s government in the past 13 years.

When he arrived at the Department for Levelling Up, Homes and Communities (DLUHC), I welcomed him as the sort of politician who could reform our broken planning system, put us on a path to build the homes this country desperately needs, and in the process, do something to reduce the gap between London and the Home Counties and other regions, which has never been just about house prices, but about equality of opportunity.

I am sorry to say I have seen none of this. His proposed changes – I cannot in all honesty call them reforms – to the planning system will weaken our ability to provide the homes the country needs. He has talked of brownfield first and refused to countenance the obvious logic that it is the green belt that needs to be re-examined, when so much of it is anything but green.

His abandonment of the requirement for local planning authorities to have a five-year land supply has been profoundly depressing, as has his apparent willingness to follow Tories such as Theresa Villiers, who appear to want nothing built anywhere near them. I’ve heard serious industry players forecast that if all this is translated into law, we will be lucky to build 150,000 homes every year, never mind the 300,000 we know we need.

Confusion on levelling up

As to levelling up, it is clear that nobody inside government can even agree on what it means. I would have thought it was obvious, given the disparity of opportunity, but you would be hard pushed to point to a single achievement that could be laid at DLUHC’s door.

Indeed, it has been left to opposition leader Keir Starmer to talk about passing more powers to local authorities, which while not as easy as it sounds, is still a step in the right direction.

And now Gove has shown his true colours. His approach to paying for cladding remediation is not only grossly unfair, but

has aspects of coercion attached to it. It has to be said very loudly that in the vast majority of cases, developers believed the cladding they attached to their buildings was legal under the prevailing regulations. On that basis, they do not deserve to be treated as criminals. Owners of buildings that bought them having ascertained that they met the regulations cannot be blamed either.

Gove proposes an indiscriminate levy on current owners, which is manifestly unfair, and threatens that if they don’t pay, they will have existing consents withdrawn. I have no personal or corporate interest

in this, but in very simple language, this is wrong, and any court in the land should say so. In truth, the cost of remediating cladding should fall on all taxpayers. Gove would like to please HM Treasury. His proposals are clever and brutal. Any decent government should reject them out of hand.

Steve Norris is chairman of Soho Estates