Michael Gove is now in charge of one of the government’s biggest short-term problems: what to do about its proposed planning reform, which are facing huge opposition from Tory backbenchers, as well as levelling up, the government’s long-term aim.
I write in the Times today 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 thinks that tweaking rules on credit and buy-to-let is as important, if not more so, than using more land for development. Remember that there were more second homes bought in the decade after the financial crisis than there were new homes built.
Then, there is the whole question of levelling up. Many in government regard the policy broadly as a plus. One tells me: ‘The wider you go, the more you can offer something for everyone.’ One cabinet minister insists it is ‘not a problem that it is ambiguous’. Boris Johnson is of this view too. He’d like it to include public services, crime and the gap in life expectancy between rich and poor areas. These may all be important issues but the sheer breadth of the policy means that ‘levelling up’ is becoming a label, like ‘build back better’, that ministers attach to everything rather than an actual, actionable agenda.
The challenge for Gove is to change this. The first test will come with the levelling up White Paper and the spending review which both come out at the end of next month. He needs to make levelling up much more focused on boosting economic growth in the regions and devolving power downwards.