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Lucky number Seven

15 September 2021

By Pearce Branigan

Last summer, then-Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick boldly unveiled the Planning for the Future White Paper, announcing that the Government would deliver their 2019 General Election Manifesto pledge to ‘build at least a million more homes, of all tenures, over the next Parliament’, by "bringing forward radical and necessary reforms to our planning system to get Britain building and drive our economic recovery".

Just one year and the largest domestic political rebellions to-date faced during Boris Johnson’s premiership later, this announcement has instead proved Jenrick’s undoing, costing him his job at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

The wide-ranging planning reforms have rapidly become a toxic quagmire for the Conservative Party, with concerted opposition from backbench Members of Parliament and councillors in Conservative-held areas constituencies and authorities across the heartlands of southern England and the Home Counties, who fear of impeding electoral oblivion if thousands of homes are delivered.

Though these elements of the planning reforms, including the revised standard method, have been ‘amended’ to deliver the majority of homes in less densely populated areas of the Midlands and the North, away from the politically sensitive regions in the South, Jenrick is seen as intrinsically tied to the policy, even if it no longer was policy. Conservative opposition to the bold vision of last summer was as much about the policy as it was the man, leaving Jenrick, in effect, hoist with his own policy: he had to go.

Enter Gove

Gove’s eloquence at the dispatch box can be matched by his ability as an administrator. From David Cameron’s premiership onwards, Gove has consistently been deployed to head up contentious and difficult briefs in government. Be it his tenures as Secretary of State driving through reforms at the Department for Education and Ministry of Justice, as Chief Whip as the mastermind behind the Conservatives 2015 general election victory, or in his current post at the Cabinet Office heading up negotiations with the European Union, Gove has been considered as effective in delivering the policy objectives for the government of the day.

However, Gove’s appointment as Housing Secretary is as much about replacing Jenrick, as it is changing the narrative of the department and Johnson’s premiership more broadly towards the Levelling Up agenda.

The abandonment of delivering homes in densely populated areas in the South, in favour of over delivery in less populated areas of the Midlands and the North is being presented by the government as intrinsic to the Levelling Up agenda. Namely, that providing good quality homes in those former-industrial regions of the UK will contribute to improving life chances and the quality of life for those communities and younger people growing up there. Its hard to disagree with that narrative and retrospectively, it will be applied as the intent from the manifesto pledge in December 2019.

The art of politics is as much down to luck as it is skill. As far as skilled political operators go, Michael Gove is certainly in the upper echelons. That he is also the seventh individual to hold the title of Secretary of State at the department since 2010 will likely be where the luck comes in, and considering the challenge before him, he will need as much as possible.