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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Black

Yeah but no but yeah but no.......Gove's First Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee.

On Monday Michael Gove appeared at his first Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee in his new role as Secretary of State for DLUHC.

Clive Betts in his role as the excellent, and long standing chair of the committee, got straight in there with his killer question from the off asking Gove ‘What does levelling up actually mean?’

Gove, in a refreshingly concise response, told the committee that, in a single sentence, it meant ‘making opportunity more equal across the country’. I think we would all subscribe to that.

He then set out four strands for what they would be doing under the ‘Levelling Up’ agenda:

  1. Strengthen local leadership

  2. Improving living standards

  3. Improving quality of public services

  4. Helping to restore pride in place (some communities which are more successful are where there is opportunity for local identity)

The main point that Gove made is that while talent is spread equally across the country – opportunity is not. For him, ‘Levelling Up’ means tackling the geographical inequality that needs to be addressed.

So far, so good from Gove and nice to have a little bit more clarity on what ‘Levelling Up’ means for the government at least. However it’s not just in different areas of the country where ‘geographic inequality’ exists, this happens within individual towns and cities as well.

If Gove got on the jubilee line from his office in Westminster and headed east towards Canning Town (although I bet he never has!) he would find that each stop represents almost one year of life expectancy lost. Life expectancy drops from an average of 77.7 years for males and 84.2 years for females in Westminster to 71.6 years and 80.6 years respectfully in Canning Town. Despite regeneration projects and improvements in infrastructure, those inequalities remain very close to home, let alone across the country. I’m not saying that the rest of the country doesn’t matter, far from it, but this isn’t a north vs south matter – it’s much more complicated and nuanced than that.

Clive Betts and others on the committee pressed Gove and others in DLUHC on how the success of any Levelling Up agenda will be measured (something previously picked up by Andy Haldane who is now the head of the Levelling Up Taskforce). Gove is clearly alive to this and compared it to the role of BEIS in delivering in delivering net carbon zero in that it isn’t only about them but they are very reliant on other departments to achieve a target which is still some way off in future.

Ben Everitt (MP for Milton Keynes) who himself suggested is at the very southern tip of the red wall quizzed Gove on the topic of housing supply and demand suggesting that even if targets are reached, then affordability for most continues to creep away.

Gove reiterated there is a desire to rebalance the trend to build homes in area where market is ‘hot’. DLUHC will be working with Homes England to unlock this outside of the South East. However in general, Gove said that housing supply needs to keep pace with household formation (more on that in a minute) and it was about a mixture of money and unlocking land to get the right houses in the right places. I’ve talked about what that might mean before. Yes to unlocking brownfield sites of course. But what about people in housing need who need an actual house? In an area outside of town or city centres? How does levelling up serve those people?

Matt Vickers (MP for Stockton South) quizzed Gove on what he had been doing on stakeholder feedback from the white paper. Who were the stakeholders, what had they said, and what was he doing in response?

Again, Gove suggest government are in ‘listening mode’. A lot of things were said by Gove but most telling was that communities had told the government that they felt that planning was something done ‘to them’ rather than ‘with them’ through a combination of top down numbers and a ‘computer says no’ approach (another Little Britain quote). He even suggested that there was a lack of reasonableness in the approach from PINs at times (what a way to ingratiate yourself with Bristol, Govey!).

Later on Gove was pressed on whether the manifesto pledge to build 300,000 a year by the mid 2020s still stood? Gove said it would but they weren’t going to rush into it. Discussions turned to housing targets and specifically uplift in housing requirements for metropolitan areas. Back to Clive Betts who referenced his own constituency of Sheffield where the target of 40,000 homes over 15 years was just about doable but 50,000 homes was going to be very difficult.

Gove was keen to stress that government were keen to ensure that the agenda on beauty, environment, quality, democratic control and proper infrastructure where all taken into account in delivering housing numbers. Gove also seemed to make a suggestion that the way in which housing targets were calculated in the first place and how they were deployed would be relooked at.

My impressions so far is that Gove does get it and also knows what needs to be done. But also he realises the duplicity of wanting to get to housing numbers but not wanting another Chesham on his hands (particularly closer to home). At times on Monday it seemed like we were getting some clarity on some matters we have been waiting on but there remains an air of duplicity around what is being said against what we all know if happening on the ground. It definitely sometimes erred on Vicky Pollard at times.

Gove says the government are in listening mode. Well so am I and I still haven’t heard anything which gives me confidence on direction of where we are going on planning for housing growth. I’ll keep listening.

AB – My own Thoughts.


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