Michael Gove, the highly opinionated polymathematical star of the Tory front bench, might just get the chance to translate his thoughts on housing and planning into action soon. David Blackman found out what they are
Hands up who remembers Robert Jones? Thought not. He was the planning minister in the last Conservative government, one of the multitude of Tory MPs buried by the 1997 landslide that swept Tony Blair to power.
Since then, a series of obscure MPs have taken on the shadow housing and planning brief. None has made much of an impression, partly reflecting the low standing of these issues in Conservative circles.
All that changed last November when David Cameron appointed Michael Gove his housing and planning spokesman. Gove is a VIP in the Cameron universe, one of the Notting Hill set that propelled the old Etonian to the party leadership. Or, as Nick Keable, the director of lobbying firm Saint Consulting puts it, “He’s one of the bright young things that surround David Cameron.”
Having once shared a flat with Nick Boles, the openly gay chief of right-wing think tank Policy Exchange, Gove clearly has few of the personal morality hang-ups commonly found in older Tories.
And to describe Gove as a polymath is an understatement. He is a regular panellist on BBC2’s Late Review, writes a weekly column in The Times, where he was assistant editor before being elected to the House of Commons in the 2005 general election, and he has just published a novel, Celsius 7/7, that analyses the rise of Islamic extremism. Gove’s previous engagement before meeting Building at the House of Commons was to hear a speech by Henry Kissinger, the octogenarian former US secretary of state.
Clutching a beaker of coffee hurriedly picked up at the Westminster branch of Caffè Nero, he admits that his two young children probably don’t get to see as much of daddy as they would like.
The one thing that the public doesn’t tend to hear much about from Gove are his views on housing and planning. That is supposed to change at next week’s party conference, however. And he hints that he is preparing to tackle some sacred Tory cows on the greenfield debate.
Before becoming MP for the affluent Surrey Heath constituency, the 39-year-old Gove admits that he took little interest in the brief. But his seat, which contains some of the worst problems of affordability in the UK, helped open his eyes. “The whole area of planning and housing is fascinating,” he says.
When interest rates are being determined largely by the need to stem house price rises, he believes it is right to look seriously at housing and the impact it has on the wider economy. “There are tough questions that we need to ask ourselves about what social housing is for,” he says, pinpointing the need to offer more for the “lost generation” priced out of the housing market but unable or unwilling to rent from a social landlord.
Gove adds that the planning system is ripe for similarly radical reform. “People forget that the biggest change in planning occurred after the Second World War and we are living with the details of the post-war Attlee settlement. People argue that the NHS is the greatest legacy of that government, but you could argue that the principle of planning is more durable.”
He agrees that it is ironic that successive Tory governments, including that led by Margaret Thatcher, have been content to live with a system of state planning that free-market ideologues describe as the nationalisation of land use.
But he insists that the party doesn’t “want to go somewhere like Houston where they have abandoned the whole principle of planning”.
He likes the idea put forward by John Gummer, former Tory environment secretary, that owners of post-war homes should be allowed to make alterations without having to apply for planning permission.
Gove also has severe doubts about the principle of prescribing the allocation of land, which underpins the planning system.
“It’s difficult for anybody to say, five or 10 years hence, what the precise land use will be in a particular area. The current system obliges us to be overly precise. There are certain projects where we need to plan ahead, like big infrastructure, but the idea of prescribing what should be commercial or residential is problematic. If you plan 10 years ahead, you are trying too hard.
The one thing that the public doesn’t tend to hear much about from Gove are his views on housing and planning
“I don’t like regional government that is not accountable and I don’t like centrally set housing targets. I’d like to see the back of regional government and regional plans and I don’t think having housing targets is helpful.”
Gove believes it is possible to increase housing supply by offering communities carrots instead of sticks. “What’s struck me as an MP is how much of the government’s efforts to increase housing supply has been counter-productive because they have created significant amounts of opposition.
“If you create the right sort of incentives, you create the circumstances in which planners can respond to meet demand.”
He does not think this is a naive approach, arguing that authorities would want more housing if they could keep a bigger share of council tax revenues. If local authorities were confronted by the prospect of declining tax revenues and poorer services, they might be less inclined to strike Nimby postures. “You will have local authorities competing for the right sort of development.”
The government’s proposal for a planning gain supplement is, he says, a step in the wrong, centralist direction. “We would like to see the government change its position. It’s not sufficiently local, it’s going to go straight to the Treasury and the money that is raised locally will be spent in somewhere in a large region – you could have development in Deal being spent in Slough.”
He adds that his party would scrap the idea, brushing off rumours that the Conservative position has wavered on the issue. But as in many areas of Tory policy, he is reluctant to offer a concrete alternative.
“We want to ensure we have something fair and transparent so communities can benefit from development,” he says – but won’t specify what.
Similarly, the Tories have recently campaigned against the trend to build in suburban back gardens. But cracking down on one of the few sources of brownfield land in many towns and cities raises the question about where development should go. Gove suggests that the Conservatives will be prepared to be more open-minded about the case for building on greenfield land than they have in recent years.
“The green belt has been a very useful way of preserving environmentally valuable land – I would not like to see the green belt protections disappear – but I think the planning regime puts more pressure on urban green spaces.
“We should acknowledge that there’s agricultural land that the European taxpayer is paying for nothing to be done on it. Some of that land could be used for growth.”
He agrees with the analysis of economist Kate Barker, who found that a greater proportion of the UK land mass is protected than any other developed country. The issue was brought into sharp focus for Gove after English Nature created a special protection area in Surrey Heath. This means housing development has been curbed to protect the habitats of rare bird species.
“I would not want to see that protection relaxed, but I think we have to acknowledge from an environmental point of view the increase in travel-to-work times for a lot of people. These environmental costs have to be put into the balance sheet.”
He insists that he wants to stay in his current brief, particularly after the recent government reshuffle, in which community affairs transferred to him from the Home Office. “I am particularly interested in Islamist thought and it’s interesting that that has become part of Ruth Kelly’s brief. To be part of the team shadowing that department is fascinating.
“When we have a Conservative government, I would hope to be involved in that debate.” Unlike his predecessors, it might be an offer that Gove has the chance to take up.
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