In one of the least well-kept secrets of the political world, Liz Truss’s first Cabinet has now been announced. In the shake up, well regarded MP Simon Clarke has been appointed Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities. He takes over the role from interim manager and near namesake Greg Clark MP.
Another Oxbridge alumni, Mr Clarke made his way through the political ranks after a few years at the Magic Circle law firm, Slaughter & May.
Political success has come quickly. He became an MP at the second time of asking, winning his Middlesborough South and East Cleveland seat from Labour in 2017. The seat has historically been a marginal but with Teesside (assisted by Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen) moving strongly in the Conservatives’ direction in recent years, Clarke currently enjoys a sizeable majority in excess of 11,000.
Having worked as an MP’s researcher (to Dominic Raab and Graham Stuart) as recently as the 2010-15 Parliament, Clarke served as Chief Secretary to the Treasury in the Johnson administration but notably opted to support Ms Truss rather than his boss at the Treasury Rishi Sunak. This appointment therefore comes as no surprise with top Cabinet jobs handed to Truss loyalists.
Representing a Red Wall constituency, we would expect him to devote significant attention to the ‘Levelling Up’ element of his new portfolio. Truss will hope this appointment helps the Conservatives retain the Red Wall seats won by Johnson. However, this may be an uphill struggle if the government fails to honour its levelling up pledges and make noticeable progress on the ground.
During his time as Minister of State for Regional Growth and Local Government, Clarke was one of very few MPs to publicly support the 2020 Planning reforms and is deemed by some within the development industry to possess a sensible approach to Planning. However, Planning reform under the first term of the Truss administration may appear tokenistic and is unlikely to mirror Robert Jenrick’s proposals due to concerns about how Green Belt release will be viewed in the Conservative’s Southern heartlands and its general unpopularity amongst the membership. Clarke has also been a champion for both local and national regeneration. Such enthusiasm will be welcomed with local authorities trying to recover from economic damage caused by the pandemic but with a depleted Treasury, the funds for this will need to be used imaginatively.
Although Clarke does not represent a Home Counties constituency like his two predecessors, Green Belt development is likely to remain a key issue in the South East of England in particular where there is nervousness among Conservative controlled councils who face local elections in May 2023. Although Clarke appears to be instinctively (see his tweets from 2021 below) in favour of additional land supply to tackle affordability, he will also be acutely aware of the political dangers in the short-term, which will make for an interesting dynamic
Mr Clarke is also a strong advocate for the delivery of Net Zero to tackle climate change, an issue brought to the fore by the summer heatwave. It will be interesting to see how this impacts upon planning policy as the Conservatives vacillate between a slower road to net neutrality and a more rapid approach. Mr Clarke’s ability to address this issue at the highest levels (and parallel issues such as nitrate neutrality) will have a direct bearing on future planning regulation and the ability for developers to build new homes in the places they are most needed.
When tweeting about the Planning reforms in 2021, Clarke stated:
“Sensible planning reform, allowing communities to protect areas they cherish while designating others for good quality development, with strict design codes, can break the deadlock and ensure we don’t continue to privilege the interest of those who have homes over those who don’t.”
With soaring property and rent prices, there is a possibility we could see both a necessary and refreshing change in direction with more emphasis on helping the younger generation onto the property ladder. But without a manifesto to fall back on the industry – and DLUHC officials – will have to wait until Mr Clarke indicates the direction he wants to take.
In addition, further local government reform may be on the horizon, with Clarke recently highlighting how local government devolution can drive economic growth. Truss has also spoken about devolving powers throughout her leadership campaign.
Clarke is known to have previously been supportive of creating more unitary councils and it appears likely that we may see further movement in this direction. However, this typically involves a battle with the Treasury – his old department, giving him a good idea of which levers to pull.
Overall, Mr Clarke’s appointment presents an intriguing opportunity at a key moment for the housing industry. With all eyes on the announcements of the first week and whether the claims made in the leadership race will hold, there is an opportunity for a reset in the relationship between Downing Street and the development sector with the intention of building the homes needed to fuel good growth.
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