Michael Gove is a political heavy-weight and household name, but what do we know about his views on housing, planning and the environment?

New housing secretary Michael Gove is one of the most recognisable politicians in the UK, with a reputation for pushing through bold reforms in the face of opposition - not least in education. He was also environment secretary for two years from 2017 under Theresa May. 

As he prepares to grapple in his new role with changes to the planning system and the landmark Building Safety Bill, here are a few things about Gove and his past relationship with housing.

He has previous frontbench history in housing

As a member of the Cameroon ‘Notting Hill set’ Gove served as shadow minister for housing and planning between 2005 and 2007.

Gove was notable for his opposition to Home Information Packs (HIPs), introduced by the Labour government in August 2007. HIPs, which were subsequently abolished by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government a few years later, required sellers to put together a set of certified documents before they could put their house on the market.

gove re-sized

In May 2006, he said: “There is a new consensus, led by my right honourable friend Mr Cameron and my honourable friend Mr Osborne, on the need to increase housing supply and help first-time buyers. It would be a tragedy if that new consensus were disrupted by the introduction of an ill-thought-through intervention in the market.”

In a twist, years later he admitted in a Radio 4 interview that some of the arguments for HIPs “had validity”.

He was the founding chair of Policy Exchange

Few organisations have had as much influence on government housing policy as Policy Exchange, and Gove was a key figure right from the start becoming its first chair in 2002.

In the years since Policy Exchange has had a key influence on policies. Its localist ideas, including support for new garden cities, its support for brownfield development and suggestions of social housing sell-offs have all been seen in bits of policy over the past few years.

Last year’s Policy Exchange report Rethinking the planning system for the 21st century is a clear influence on the current government’s purposed planning reforms, not least the idea that land should be divided into different classes to either protect it from or permit growth.

Social housing was a part of Gove’s bid to become Conservative leader

Remember when Gove stabbed Boris Johnson in the back in the 2016 Conservative leadership election? Gove withdrew his support for Johnson and announced his own candidacy, eventually losing to Theresa May.

The episode evidently has not harmed his relationship with the current prime minister too much. What many do not remember is the fact that Gove in his leadership manifesto promised action on housebuilding, and perhaps surprisingly, social housebuilding, in particular.

He said at the time: “We need a national ambition to build hundreds of thousands of new homes a year, both private and socially-rented – led by someone who will not take no for an answer and who will push for diggers in the ground and homes for all come what may.”

Housing was centre again in his second tilt at the leadership in 2019

Three years later, Gove stood again for the leadership of the Conservative Party and pledged to create a national housing fund backed by government “Brexit” bonds. This failed to cut through and he was eliminated early in the contest, leaving a run-off between Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson.

He was raising concerns about beauty in development in 2013

‘Building Beautiful’ may be all the rage currently but Gove was using the term before it became fashionable, back in 2013.

In a speech he raised concerns about the impact of rapid housebuilding if beauty is not considered, saying development must “lift up the soul”.

“I believe that we cannot think of our built environment without thinking of beauty,” he said. ”Many of the most beautiful vistas in the United Kingdom are beautiful because of building.”

He is not immune to a bit of nimbyism

Gove might well have promised to build lots of homes, but he has also displayed some classic symptoms of nimbyism.

Last year he objected to L&G backed-developer Cala Homes building 44 homes in Bagshot his Surrey Heath constituency. He attended a planning inquiry in a “personal capacity” according to The Sunday Times.

“I recognise the broader imperative to improve housing supply, but I specifically object to this development,” he said.

He may not be the biggest fan of architects …

OK this one is not strictly about housing, but it may be worth reminding the architects among you about some of Gove’s past comments about architects. In 2011 the then education secretary reportedly said architects had “creamed off” big profits from school projects under the government’s Building Schools of the Future programme.

He said: “We won’t be getting any award-winning architects to design it [the school], because no one in this room is here to make architects richer.”

In June 2010 he said: “It is critical that we ensure that taxpayers’ money is spent on the front line improving education, and not on consultants, architects or bureaucracy”

If he brings with him this approach into housing, architects had better beware.

… but he surprised environmentalists with his apparent commitment to green issues

It is fair to say there was widespread alarm when Gove was appointed environment secretary in 2017. “I was one of those characters we call a ‘shy green’,” he had told the Conservative Environment Network three years before. But then came a ban on ivory sales, action on plastic bottles, CCTV in slaughter houses, and a great deal of talk about a “green” Brexit. 

Greenpeace UK executive director John Sauven was certainly impressed by his new-found enthusiasm. “Gove has defied many people’s expectations on the environment,” he told the Guardian. George Monbiot, the environmental campaigner, appeared to agree: “This is amazing. One by one, Michael Gove is saying the things I’ve waited years for an environment secretary to say.”

Others however suggested that Gove was simply a master of saying the right thing to the right people. Molly Scott Cato, the former Green MEP for the South West England electoral region, concluded: “I believe Gove is posturing on a series of environmental cheap wins merely to establish himself as a sheep, before revealing himself as a wolf.”

Robert Jenrick, his predecessor, paid the price for failing to convince the wider public of the merit of proposed planning reforms and many predict that they will now be watered down when published, probably later this month.

So, is he just the man who knows what to say? Or could Gove be the minister who actually delivers?