Will Gove have the courage to tackle planning reform?

In my old job I knew that it wasn’t what you said that mattered, it was what you did.

And so, the appointment of Michael Gove as Secretary of State at the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities was news that was tentatively welcomed by housebuilders. Whether you agree with his politics or not, wherever he goes Michael Gove gets stuff done. Just look at the announcement on cladding that came out earlier this month. After years of uncertainty over whether residents of buildings with dangerous cladding would have the work needed to make their homes safe funded, Michael Gove resolves the issue after fewer than four months in the job.

But will Mr Gove’s ability to get things done extend to the policy area on which progress eluded his predecessors for so long: planning reform?

Well of course, it’s not that simple.

Reform of the planning system is something the current Government has been desperate to get moving ever since coming into office. Not long ago one of their slogans was “Build Build Build”. But uncertainty over how and when reforms to the planning system would be delivered, and the anxiety this causes Tory voting homeowners in the south of England, could continue to kick the planned reforms into the long grass. Perhaps not an unwelcome prospect if you would rather politicians stopped meddling in the planning system altogether.

The reality though is that politicians exist, and there is no better way for a politician to demonstrate change than to have physical things you can point to and say, “I did that”. Given that planning controls how, where and when those things appear, politicians will always have an interest in shaping the planning system.

That said, is the quagmire of Planning Reform going to be something that Gove thinks he can wade through and secure results where his colleagues have failed? Does he think he’ll be at DLUHC long enough to see it through if he gets stuck in? Or will the complexities, under-resourcing and controversial nature of planning mean that he’ll see easier options for maintaining his reputation as a doer?

Diving a little deeper into what the Secretary of State will have in his head when choosing whether planning reform is the hill to die on sadly doesn’t offer much optimism.

Planning is chronically under-resourced and has been for a long time. Here at BECG we deal with hundreds of local authorities and see the pressure they are under. One recent e-mail I was shown told a client of ours that their application would not be determined in the required timescale and the officer offered off the record advice that the developer would get a quicker outcome by going to appeal for non-determination! Planning law changes therefore become academic if there aren’t enough resources in the system to consider applications.

Then there is the contentiousness of planning in general that might put Gove off.

As an example, the Conservative Party manifesto pledged to build 300,000 homes per year. The need for that many homes is hotly contested, not least by Green Belt campaigners in my old stomping ground of Greater Manchester. Such a figure continues to be justified using population projections calculated in 2014 – pre-Brexit and pre-pandemic. Subsequent figures from the ONS have repeatedly revised these projections down, with the most recent numbers predicting that population growth will be an average 179,000 per year over the next decade. The 2014 figures predicted 354,000 per year – that’s a lot fewer people who many would argue translates into a need for a lot fewer homes.

There was a quick fix available to the Government that would enable them to still honour their manifesto pledge without upsetting too many of their voters – a fix that had been mooted and involved skewing the housing need formula to put more homes in the north of England. Such a move could also be argued to be consistent with “levelling up”. Though Boris Johnson’s 2019 smashing of the “Red Wall” means that there are now plenty of Tory voters, and Tory MPs, in the areas this would impact. Given the Greater Manchester Tories’ fierce campaigning against Green Belt allocations in the city-region’s spatial plan, it’s clear that meddling with planning in this way could prompt some “friendly fire”.

Finally, there is the question of time. Changes to the planning system will require primary legislation that take lots of it. In the middle of the partygate leadership crisis, does Michael Gove think that he will be at DLUHC long enough to see planning reform through? Even if the Prime Minister were to survive, who’s to say that he won’t undertake a diversionary reshuffle this summer? Since 2015 there have been 5 different secretaries of state for housing, so they don’t typically have a long tenure.

So Michael Gove has a lot to think about when deciding whether or not pursuing planning reform will offer him an opportunity to enhance, or a risk to, his reputation. The Thick of It was the political satire of my generation, but the infamous words of Sir Humphrey Appleby of Yes, Minister are etched into the consciousness of every politician. One wonders whether planning reform is something Michael Gove’s advisors may describe as “a courageous decision”.

This article was first published in Housebuilder Magazine, you can read it here.