September’s cabinet shake-up saw a changing of the guard at the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG). Robert Jenrick is out, and Michael Gove is in.
Along with a new boss, the department has also got a snappy new name, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC). But what might Michael Gove bring to his new role, and what challenges will he need to get to grips with?
A man who can get things done?
Recently spotted raving it up after hours at an Aberdeen nightclub, Michael Gove is rather a Marmite figure in Parliament – but love him or hate him, he does have a reputation as someone who can get things done. Unlike many career politicians who spend their time trying to be as non-committal as possible, Gove has very clear ideas about what he wants, and expects people to act on them. He’s not scared to tread on toes, as the teaching unions discovered during his unpopular stretch as education secretary.
This could be particularly important in his new role as housing secretary, since he’s inherited some very high-profile and divisive issues to get his teeth into. Two questions in particular are likely to test his mettle.
One of Michael Gove’s first acts in his new role was to put the government’s radical new planning reforms on hold.
Scathingly dubbed a ‘developers’ charter’, the proposed reforms would have represented the most substantial overhaul of the planning system since the 1940s. But some of the proposals proved hugely unpopular – including mandatory housebuilding targets for local councils and a ‘traffic-light’ system requiring councils to allocate areas of ‘development’ land that would benefit from automatic planning permission. This would effectively remove local people’s ability to object to new developments.
The reforms were so unpopular that some have blamed it for the Tories’ surprise defeat in the Chesham and Amersham by-election back in June. Certainly there was a real risk that many Conservative MPs would have voted against the legislation, and it’s worth noting that Michael Gove himself has a personal record of objecting to planning applications. His own constituency is the affluent Surrey Heath seat in London’s commuter belt, and it’s safe to say that the planning reforms as they stood would not have been a vote-winner there.
The new plan is to review the proposals and engage with all the various pressure groups, but this is going to be an exercise in tightrope-walking. On the one hand, anything that empowers developers over local residents is likely to be poorly received, but on the other hand we are still in the midst of a housing crisis. There is that inconvenient election pledge of 300,000 new homes a year in England, and it’s said that Boris Johnson believes more affordable housing for the under-30s will be a key way to convert voters in the younger age brackets.
The cladding crisis
Michael Gove’s first full day in his new job saw a major protest in Parliament Square over the cladding scandal that has made life a misery for so many property owners.
The cost of fixing the many buildings affected by unsafe cladding is estimated at £15 billion, but the government is currently only proposing to cover a third of that. The vast majority of the costs – especially for those in smaller blocks – will fall on leaseholders, who may face bills running into hundreds of thousands of pounds. Campaigners argue that the developers who installed the combustible cladding are getting away scot-free, since many have either gone into administration or simply shut down the subsidiaries that worked on the affected buildings. Meanwhile, leaseholders who bought their homes in good faith have been trapped for years in properties that are completely unsaleable until the fire safety issues are fixed.
Again, there is a great deal of pressure from within the Conservative party to give leaseholders a better deal. More than 30 Conservative MPs have already come out against the government’s plans, including key figures like ex-leader Iain Duncan-Smith.
Speaking to the Times, a government source called Michael Gove ‘arguably our best delivery minister’ and suggested that his appointment to the role signalled strong government will to get the issue sorted. If this is true, then it could be tacit acknowledgement that the government’s current offer simply isn’t good enough.
In a country where homeownership is hugely important, the outcome of the cladding scandal is a high-stakes game, and there’s added pressure in that Michael Gove was alleged to have received around £120,000 in donations from developers this year alone. From the outside, this has all the hallmarks of a conflict of interest, and he will need to be very careful not to show any partiality towards developers in the negotiations that are to come.