Close observers of UK politics could be forgiven for thinking that it is “déjà vu all over again” with the return of Michael Gove as Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities under the new administration of Rishi Sunak. Gove held the same position in Government from September 2021 to July 2022.
While the Secretary of State position is now on its 5th office holder in 13 months (with Gove serving twice), the Housing Minister post has seen even more change – current incumbent Lee Rowley is the 13th minister in the post since 2010.
Whilst the top jobs have since plenty of change; the housing crisis has been a constant.
Like him or loath him, Michael Gove is known as a man who can get things done. So, what is his agenda and what can we expect from his second spell at DLUHC?
Rishi Sunak has stressed his commitment to the principles of Levelling Up, a project Gove is interested in and has championed through the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, which he introduced to Parliament back in May. The Bill creates a ‘duty’ on the UK Government to publish a statement of ‘Levelling Up Missions’ – with ministers having to report annually on the progress of each mission. The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill was notably absent during Liz Truss’s 44 days – despite her focus on growth.
The twelve missions to level up the UK in the White Paper included increasing pay, employment, and productivity in every area of the UK – and a devolution deal for every part of England that wants one, with a simplified, long term funding settlement in place by 2030.
In her brief time in office, Truss introduced the concept of Investment Zones – areas where planning rules will be relaxed to promote growth for development. These were poorly defined and even Councils which submitted expressions of interest for the zones admitted that they had received limited detail about how investment zones would work and how they would be funded. With a new Secretary of State at DLUHC and Jeremy Hunt at the Treasury, it will be interesting to see if investment zones survive into the Sunak premiership or are jettisoned as with so much of Kwasi Kwarteng’s “mini budget”.
Gove will have to establish what – if any – of Truss’s deregulatory, pro-growth agenda he wants to keep and if it’s compatible with his levelling up vision and the legislation making its way through Parliament.
Whilst plenty of reform to the planning system has been mooted over the last few years, the sector is still in need of better funding. Gove has pledged to increase planning application fees by 25% and 35% respectively for minor and major applications but after years of underfunding, this may not still be enough to boost the resourcing crisis in planning departments and ease pressures on officers and backlogs in the system across the country.
Gove did reject the more radical plans for planning reform when he entered office but has previously rallied against housing targets – while never calling them ‘Stalinist’ like Truss. He has previously said that the focus should be “to ensure more of the right homes are built in the right way in the right places.” This represented a nod to his levelling up brief and his realised responsibility to protect places like his Surrey Heath constituency from unwanted development. It is not clear if he will act on the Standard Method as Truss appeared set to do, but if he continues her rumoured path, councils with up-to-date Local Plans would be protected from 5-year supply arguments, while authorities without up-to-date Plans would still be expected to address the five-year supply issue.
Gove’s previous tenure saw a little tinkering around planning reform, not major upheaval, but Truss may have broken the flood gates with her vitriol towards targets. With his dismissal of house builders as a “cartel” it remains to be seen whether Gove will continue down the Truss route or stick to more moderated interventions.
We will remain vigilant and are happy to discuss any or all of the above in more detail.