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Meet the new SoS - same as the old SoS?

By Douglas Johnson
15 October 2021

By Douglas Johnson

It's a strange feeling to look at the headlines and not be entirely sure which year you've woken up in. Michael Gove's recent pledge to focus on using brownfield land to meet housing need is therefore a little jarring.

Early reporting on Mr Gove's appointment at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) focused on his reforming credentials and track record in difficult briefs. His statement that, 'making the most of previously developed land is a Government priority and it will help protect our cherished countryside and green spaces,' suggests we may have some time to wait before seeing him roll up his sleeves at DLUHC.

Compare this to a similar pledge from Sir Eric Pickles in 2014: 'The Coalition Government is determined to make the very best use of derelict land and former industrial sites to help provide the homes this country desperately needs, in a way that protects our valued countryside'. While there are differences in the detail of Mr Gove's announcement, including a promise to deliver more housing in the north, it's hard not to see the announcement as a reversion to type with a big 'Levelling Up' sticker plastered over the top.

The arguments on the merits and demerits of meeting the country's housing needs by building on previously developed land are well-rehearsed, and there would be little benefit in rehashing them here. What is notable is that the Government is moving strongly to reassure MPs in southern seats that planning reforms won't threaten their vote - Mr Gove's announcement follows the Prime Minister's own pledge to protect the countryside from being 'desecrated by ugly homes'.

It may be that Mr Gove will find alternative outlets within the Department for his reforming energies, or that there is more to come. However, as with the last five secretaries of state that have passed through DCLG/MHCLG/DLUHC in the last five years, he will find himself with limited room for manoeuvre unless he finds a way of making a case for housing which doesn't ring alarm bells in the shires.