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Gove puts planning reforms on hold and looks to tackle levelling-up

UK politics & policy updates

Michael Gove, the new cabinet minister in charge of housing and the levelling-up agenda, has put the UK government’s flagship planning reforms on hold, creating further uncertainty for the property industry.

Gove, who was appointed to lead the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government in Boris Johnson’s big reshuffle of his top team earlier this week, has taken on two of the thorniest issues in the government’s in-tray: housing reform and tackling regional inequality.

The new cabinet met for the first time on Friday, where the prime minister delivered a “half-time pep talk” on the need to focus on improving public services, Downing Street said, in reference to Johnson’s shake-up signalling an intensification of preparations for the next general election. Gove’s expanded ministry will be responsible for much of that agenda.

Those with knowledge of Gove’s thinking said he intended to use his new portfolio to pursue “a relentless focus on overlooked families and unvalued communities” — pointing to the themes of a lecture he delivered last summer on “the forgotten man” who backed Brexit in 2016.

Housing will pose his trickiest challenge. Last year, his predecessor Robert Jenrick drew up a radical white paper that would have led to the biggest shake-up in the planning system in England for decades. The reforms were designed to ease the building of at least 300,000 new homes annually with many younger people in the UK struggling to buy their first home after years of spiralling house prices.

The changes would have forced all councils to draw up 10-year plans with all land designated in one of three ways: protected, renewal or growth. In growth zones, any proposal meeting the local “design code” would have been waved through without the need for any specific planning permission.

The original proposals were backed by some Tory MPs in the so-called “red wall” of former Labour seats, because they would free up disused sites for rapid redevelopment. But they also prompted a backlash by scores of Tory MPs in the party’s own traditional heartland of southern England who threatened to vote against the proposals over fears it would allow developers to build on the greenbelt.

Jenrick had been poised to announce — as early next week — that he was pushing ahead with many of the proposals, while diluting the most controversial element. Under the compromise proposals, the “growth zones” would have been downgraded to “growth sites” with a presumption rather than automatic permission for development.

But Gove’s arrival in the department has put a further hold on the reforms. “As you may expect, as new secretary of state in a new department he is taking some time to review proposals and engage constructively with colleagues,” said one ally. “It’s paused.”

An indication of Gove’s probable approach came when he appointed Neil O’Brien, MP for Harborough — one of the most prominent rebels against the proposals — as one of his junior ministers. O’Brien has called for “thought and careful handling” of the reforms.

Andrew Whitaker, planning director for the Home Builders Federation, said the defenestration of Jenrick had clearly been designed to give “breathing space” to the planning shake-up. 

“But I’m not convinced they are going to throw it all out,” he said. “The problems with the planning system that were identified in the white paper still remain — if anything, they are worse than they were last year,” he said.

Gove’s other challenge is explaining and delivering Johnson’s levelling-up agenda, aimed at tackling regional inequalities. The prime minister has complained that many in government do not understand his key platform, so he has turned to the man who helped deliver the Brexit vote with him in 2016 and then infamously blocked his path to Downing Street immediately afterwards.

Allies of Johnson said Gove was “the only person who has enough knowledge of Whitehall to get a grip on levelling up”.

The importance of this agenda to the Tories’ re-election hopes explains why Gove was willing to move to a ministry traditionally seen as something of a backwater. One government insider said the agenda was now “Johnson’s defining mission”.

Gove’s new department marks another challenge for one of the Conservative party’s few ministers with a proven record of reform. One aide who has worked with him said: “Whether at education, environment, justice or the Cabinet Office, Michael has learnt how to get things done.”

One well-placed Whitehall official suggested that Gove was eager for a new challenge after overseeing civil service reform and tackling the coronavirus pandemic from the Cabinet Office.

“Remember how he delivered education reforms while simultaneously reducing staffing by a quarter?” they said, referring to his time as education secretary. “Or [when justice secretary] how he won over the tricky judges? He makes the weather.”

In his expanded ministry, Gove has also brought with him responsibilities from the Cabinet Office for protecting the integrity of the UK and liaising with the administrations of the devolved nations.

Those with knowledge of his thinking said he intends to use his new local government responsibilities to further the case for the Union. One senior Tory MP said, “Michael can use local government to direct money straight to the people of Scotland and show them the value of the Union.”

With its wider focus, Gove’s new ministry is expected to undergo a rebrand. One civil servant predicted Gove would create “a new and unexpected Whitehall super department”.

The official added: “Gove will rapidly work out whether key officials are up to snuff, replacing those who don’t cut the mustard . . . officials will find he absorbs briefs at a frightening pace.”

Some in Westminster have speculated this could be Gove’s last major role in government, after first entering the cabinet in 2010. After two failed leadership bids, those who work with him said he has “no aspirations for the top job”. But they believed he would continue in government for years to come. “He serves at the pleasure of the prime minister,” one said.

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