Guest Blog: Why Michael Gove Needs to Grasp the Nettle

By Simon Cox, MD of Walter Cooper

Who would want to be in charge of housing, not to mention tackling regional inequality at the same time? There are those who claim (albeit tongue in cheek) that far from being a promotion, the job of Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is actually Boris Johnson’s revenge on friend-turned-enemy Michael Gove for failing to back him as Tory leader in 2016.

When you look at the turnover in the Government department responsible for housing it’s clear that there is no stability. There have been six Secretaries of State in seven years – Eric Pickles, Greg Clark, Sajid Javid, James Brokenshire, Robert Jenrick and now Michael Gove – plus 10 Housing Ministers in just over a decade, including Dominic Raab and Grant Shapps. Some have been moved on for failing to achieve much – others, it seems, for threatening to achieve too much.

Robert Jenrick’s attempt to push through a root-and-branch reorganisation of the planning system, that would have made it dramatically easier to create new housing, provoked such a backlash among voters in Tory heartlands that he has been blamed (by some) for costing the Conservatives the Chesham and Amersham by-election. Michael Gove’s first act in his new department was to press the pause button on this planned legislation that would have forced councils to draw up 10-year plans designating some land as growth zones where new housing would be waved through, speeding up the building of 300,000 new homes a year.

Which leaves us where? The system is clearly broken. We hear plenty of soundbites about a housing crisis, but as a land agent who can see both sides, I think it has become clear that it’s a planning crisis that is causing the housing crisis. Many of my clients are paying exorbitant planning fees to local planning departments, yet the departments appear outwardly short-staffed, underpaid and under-resourced, causing huge hold-ups and in some cases mistakes. Lack of training leads to some unfortunate incidents such as the junior council worker at Swale Borough Council who recently managed to turn down half a dozen real planning applications by accident, thinking it was a training exercise, only to find that the decisions and reasons given, including “just don’t” and “your proposal is whack”, were legally binding, admittedly a bad day in the office but symptomatic of the aforementioned issues.

One simple solution which would require consultation and conversation would be allowing planning departments to retain the income they receive and dedicate it to training, boosting efficiency and employing more officers. Ringfencing planning fees would help develop a quality service for developers and value for money for the taxpayer. As land agents we want to engage with local councils and our policy makers to assist in solving the issue, so housebuilders can avoid lengthy planning delays and build the houses we need faster.

My other suggestions would require Mr Gove to have nerves of steel – and despite his mild-mannered exterior he is a political heavyweight who hasn’t shied away from making unpopular decisions in the past. The idol-worship of the Green Belt has to go! London’s Green Belt now covers an area of 513,000 hectares[1], three times larger than the city itself, and it strangles the capacity to build new homes. We love the countryside but there needs to be an acceptance and understanding that not all of the greenbelt is virgin fields and that, in some cases, parts can actually be areas of redundant tarmac or similar.

Take Hertfordshire; geographically it is perfect for building – the commute is fast; house prices are in the majority affordable; and there is a perfect mix of countryside and proximity to urban towns, where the country-city balance embodies the post-Covid dream. According to its Local Plan, Hertfordshire should have 40,000 new homes[2], but complex and archaic planning laws mean that the sites have been chosen with little due diligence for what land is actually available, and homes are simply not being built. The planning system simply hasn’t accounted for the human element – when the landowner doesn’t want to sell his land because of sentimental value, or when a councillor opposes a scheme for any number of reasons.  When land on preferred sites doesn’t come forward, you have a plan B of less suitable sites. The community objects so permission is refused, but then it ends up being passed on appeal because the local authority isn’t meeting its housing targets. Meanwhile, years have passed, demotivating developers to take on big projects and leaving the community up in arms because they had their voice silenced.

So what is the solution? Some of the lowest quality Green Belt must be unlocked – even a very small percentage would ease housing deficiencies tremendously. I am sure those who object have roofs over their heads already. Secondly, the planning system does need changing. If the local councillors who decide on planning permission had a minimum standard of training in this field, it would go a long way to make the system more credible and efficient. Finally, local authorities need more money to support local planning officers and create jobs with real career progression and reward.

Good luck, Mr Gove – you know where to find us if you need us.