Readers of this column will know that I have a special place in my heart for that most agile and effective of ministers, Michael Gove.

Steve Norris

Steve Norris

He has a seriously stellar record in government: a great education secretary, who also undid much of the damage Chris Grayling did to the probation service as justice minister; able, as DEFRA minister, to be popular with badger lovers and haters; and now, alongside his second spell as secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities, he is also minister for intergovernmental relations.

He was only briefly out of office when former prime minister Boris Johnson fired him out of pure spite and his successor Liz Truss obviously thought she could do without him. Make of that what you will. In truth, if there’s a problem in government, call for Gove.

And if there’s an intractable problem that neither this government nor its predecessors have been able to resolve, it’s the manifest failings of the planning system. In his first brief tenure at DLUHC, he had already made a significant impact on the cladding scandal and announced plans to force landlords to put empty shops up for rent auction, an idea with which I find it hard to disagree.

But he was also subtly moving toward the festering sore that was the impact of LPA Local Plans for housing supply in areas where the local consensus was clearly against further development. The Tories called this ‘Stalinist’ top-down targets designed to force councils to commit to a five-year housing supply through a Local Plan. Theresa Villiers MP, who led the move to amend the current levelling-up bill, used the same phrase.

But like it or not, the system has forced LPAs to be realistic about housing demand. In short, the system has worked, however much it may also have been loathed in some quarters. Many Tory MPs blame the loss of the ultra-safe Tory seat of Chesham and Amersham in 2021 on then housing secretary Robert Jenrick’s ill-fated attempt at planning reform, which locals judged would flood their area with more housing.

Sympathies with Nimbys

Enter Gove. He knows the government is committed to building 300,000 homes a year, which it consistently fails to deliver. He knows where the Tories stand in the polls and that there will be an election in two years’ time at the latest, and very probably six months earlier. So he starts hinting that his sympathies are with the Nimbys, who he judges, perhaps wrongly, to be mainly Conservative, with much talk of local community engagement, quality architecture and protecting the green belt – all of which is music to Nimby ears.

He hints that the Planning Inspectorate has been perhaps a little too officious in its interpretation of the rules when allowing developments that local authorities had rejected. So on 6 December, he announces the ending of the obligation for LPAs to maintain a rolling five-year supply of land for housing where their plans are up to date, and removes the requirement for a 20% buffer to plan-making. He hints at rewarding councils that have “historically over-delivered on housing”.

More controversially, he confirms a consultation on allowing LPAs to refuse planning applications from developers that have “built slowly in the past”. What on earth that is supposed to mean, and how such developers will be judged, remains an open question. He also apparently wants to ensure LPAs are not sanctioned under the Housing Delivery Test “when it is developers who are not building”. Again, how is that to be measured? Are we back to the age-old chestnut that homes aren’t built because developers deliberately hold sites rather than build them out?

Given polling that suggests voters care more about how their children can ever afford to live near them than they do about Nimby considerations, and that the impact of a serious relaxation of the current system may result in as few as 140,000 housing starts next year, has Gove now made a fatal error?

Steve Norris is chairman of Soho Estates and Future-Built