It’s a point often made by Tribune contributors that housing is one of the most important aspects of political, economic, and social life in the UK. That’s an analysis that Michael Gove seems to share. He has spent the last few days using his new housing brief as the basis for a Whitehall power grab, and has secured for himself a newly rebranded Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC).
Ten years ago, the ministry was called the Department for Communities and Local Government. Although that was a Blair-era title, it suited the Coalition government well, as the language resonated with its key policy objectives of cuts to local authority funding and the failed ‘Big Society’ project. In DLUHC we now have a department with a name that’s appropriate to the big problems of the 2020s: the UK’s remarkable levels of regional inequality, and its ever-worsening housing crisis.
Gove’s new role puts him in charge of some of the government’s most pressing and high-profile areas of policy. His to-do list includes implementing dramatic reforms to private renting (long delayed since they were initially promised in the 2019 Queen’s Speech), navigating Tory infighting over planning reform, and calming the ongoing disquiet about the fire safety and leasehold scandals. He also, of course, inherits an ever-worsening homelessness crisis, and the possibility of mass evictions as the Universal Credit uplift is abolished and the furlough scheme is brought to an end.
While we don’t know exactly where Gove stands on all of these major policy issues, he has been trying to distinguish his personal brand from that of his predecessor. Robert Jenrick’s term was characterised by his refusal to resign for unlawfully approving a massive luxury housing scheme while being personally lobbied by the developer (Tory donor Richard Desmond). His unashamedly pro-developer planning reform proposals, and his frank refusal to pursue his own department’s commitment to private renting reform, suggest that Jenrick was sensitive to the needs of the development and landlord lobbies.
Gove, on the other hand, seems to be trying to show that he is less in thrall to the developers. Last week the Times reported that ‘Those MPs who have discussed planning with Gove in recent weeks have been struck by his emphasis on the fact that only 15 per cent of the house price inflation of the last two decades comes from a lack of supply. This suggests Gove regards tweaking rules on credit and buy-to-let as being important, if not more so, than releasing land for development.’ To Jenrick’s discredit, Gove’s critique of his predecessor’s pro-development ideology is consistent with civil servants’ official analysis (which finds that the housing affordability crisis has nothing to do with the level of supply of new homes).
But while this tougher-on-developers stance might have been designed to make Gove look less credulous than Jenrick, it doesn’t actually make him much of a maverick within the Conservative Party. Instead, he’s comfortably within the mainstream of southern English Tories who oppose building on the Green Belt (he is, after all, MP for Surrey Heath). So we shouldn’t entertain the idea that Gove’s doubts about Jenrick’s planning proposals mean that he is remotely serious about implementing just, effective solutions to the housing crisis; indeed, in his many Cabinet roles, Gove has shown a real skill for implementing the cruel and immiserating policies of the Cameron, May, and Johnson governments.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for the new DLUHC is the fact that the UK’s precarious housing market is also the keystone of its national economy. Gove will have seen some troubling headlines over the last few weeks. Rental yields in London—the engine room of the housing crisis—are falling at their sharpest pace in eleven years. Last week a real estate company which owns high-end UK property collapsed when it failed to find a buyer.
But at the same time, housing costs outside the capital continue to spiral, making affordability a serious issue in more and more areas of the country. In a complete perversion of the ‘Levelling Up Agenda’, it is the housing affordability crisis—rather than infrastructure development and meaningful investment—that is being rolled out across the UK’s regions.
Interestingly, Gove’s first move was to recruit former Bank of England chief economist Andy Haldane to lead a new ‘Levelling Up Taskforce’. With Gove and Haldane in charge, DLUHC will be a department that knows that housing is not just the business of grubby developers and landlords’ lobbyists. Housing also exists in the realm of economic and monetary policy; of national as well household economics. If the relentless rises in housing costs do prove to be unsustainable in the near future, Gove will play a critical role in deciding whose interests the state will protect.
Gove is an experienced minister. He’ll be making crucial, highly discretionary decisions about how the UK works. As the planning and renters’ rights policies make their way through Parliament, his counterparts on the Labour front bench will need to be canny as well as principled. Across the country, Labour’s mayors (and its political opponents in Scotland) are calling for rent controls, while the front bench itself continues to say almost nothing substantial on housing policy. Faced with Gove, it won’t be enough for the shadow DLUHC team to express occasional concern about the cladding scandal, or to pin their hopes on the committee stages. As the Labour leadership learned to its cost during the embarrassing episode over social care funding, it needs to meet the government’s plans with genuine policies of its own.