He has described himself as an “unabashed Americanophile”, so perhaps it is unsurprising that Michael Gove chose “Biden” as the internal Whitehall acronym for the five key pillars of his plan to encourage the construction of new homes in Britain.
It almost had another name, suggested by a political colleague: Inbed. “I said, I think that if I said that my policy as a minister was to promote ‘Inbed with Michael Gove’, that might not necessarily be interpreted in the right way,” the 54-year-old chuckles.
The Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Secretary – to use the full title he acquired in last year’s reshuffle – is sitting at a table on the second floor of the Duchess of Cornwall pub in the centre of Poundbury, Prince Charles’s development on the outskirts of Dorchester.
It is the day after the local elections and he has just been on a walking tour of the town with the Prince of Wales himself, who sweeps through the town square in a grey suit, surrounded by an entourage, shortly before the Cabinet minister arrives at the pub.
Mr Gove describes the “rock star”-style experience of wandering around, on foot, with the heir to the throne; people “calling out his name and running to try and get selfies.”
Poundbury itself, with what Mr Gove describes as “small-c conservative” architecture, has divided opinion since its inception in the Eighties. “I’ve always wanted to come here out of curiosity, because it has excited such strong feelings. I wanted to see for myself,” he says.
Poundbury’s importance to Mr Gove is due to the fact he and his advisers see the town as an embodiment of “Biden”, the key elements he wants to incorporate into the construction of Britain’s new homes: beauty; infrastructure; democracy; environment; neighbourhood.
This week, the Queen’s Speech will include a Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, the successor to the Planning Bill which was killed off by Conservative rebels last year. It is designed to encourage much-needed development across the country by guarding against some of the main factors that cause residents to oppose planning applications, including the ugliness of proposed buildings or their failure to be in keeping with surrounding structures.
“One of the big things that bedevilled attempts to ensure that we’ve got the supply of homes we need are all the reasons why people resist them,” says Mr Gove. “But you don’t get that resistance if you’ve got a community like Poundbury. You get a resistance to it from a few modernist architects who sneer at what the rest of us actually like. And you get that resistance from people who dislike anything that seems small-c conservative, but actually, the population here have embraced the fact that you’ve got beautiful homes. You’ve got all of the infrastructure, the pubs, the doctor’s surgery, the supermarket, Waitrose. All of that as part of the community.
“And the amazing thing about Poundbury is you would not be able to tell which of the homes were owned, and which of the homes were for rent. So it creates that sense of community, which is what we all like to see.”
Mr Gove’s legislation will enshrine a role for local design codes, under which residents in each area would have a say in setting rules that developers would have to follow – such as the layout of new developments, or stipulations relating to the facades of buildings or the materials that should be used.
So-called street votes could be used to draw up the codes.
“We will make sure that through local democratic ballots, sometimes street by street, we can have the enhancement that we need to see the additional homes being built. In a way that leads to what the experts call ‘gentle densification’, but what you or I would just recognise as simply building in tune with what’s already there,” he explains.
Mr Gove believes that all these changes will help to reduce local concern around new developments. Among politicians, he says, “there hasn’t always been an understanding of why there’s a resistance … My view is, resistance comes down to the quality of what is built, the business model of the house builders and the fact that they can make significant profits and those profits are not shared equally with the community; the fact that the planning system means that developers can override the clearly expressed view of local people, if they have deep enough pockets and if they game the system; the fact that there is insufficient and ineffective protection for the environment.”
Developments are often “of an identikit style, very possibly unaffordable to people who are already living in the community and with no additional NHS or educational or other amenities being provided,” he says. Mr Gove, whose reign as Education Secretary included an overhaul of the national curriculum and the creation of scores of free schools, harks back to his time as a Cabinet minister in the coalition as he pledges to pull every possible “lever” to bias the planning system in favour of quality homes.
“In the same way as when I was at the Department for Education, we were moving all of the levers to say schools have to be more ambitious, so Ofsted will be tougher, exams will be more rigorous … Everything we will do will be to try to say that the quality of homes has to improve.”
One of the “levers” Mr Gove is preparing to use is the potential for the Levelling Up Secretary himself to “call in” controversial planning applications to review them on aesthetic grounds, once the Government has set out the “design and aesthetic principles” that appear to have been flouted. Such a move would allow Mr Gove, or his successors, to make the final decision on developments that residents say have been approved despite contravening such principles.
A driving force behind such changes is the need to increase levels of home ownership – the decline in which Mr Gove believes is partly responsible for the drubbing the Conservatives experienced in several London boroughs in Thursday’s elections.
How important is it to the Conservatives that people have an opportunity to buy their own property?
“It is vitally important,” he says. “We have a problem, in that the proportion of people living in their own homes has gone down. The proportion of people in the private rented sector has gone up. Even as interest rates are in the position that they are, there are people who are perfectly capable of servicing a mortgage who are paying more in rent than they would for their mortgage. That is wrong. We need to shrink the private rented sector and get more people owning their own home.” To put it right, he says, “we do need more homes”.
But he adds: “We’re not just the party of home ownership. We’re the party that’s on the side of people who want to get on the property ladder, not the entrenched interests of developers. We’re on the side of people in the private rented sector who deserve to be treated fairly against a small minority of exploitative landlords. And we’re the party of people who deserve and need affordable social homes, council homes or housing association homes for social rent, so that they can be part of their community, they can pursue their career in the place that they love, and they can save the money necessary in order to then go on to be homeowners.”
Linking falling levels of home ownership to the Conservatives’ losses in the council elections, Mr Gove says: “There is a particular challenge for us in London and I think that challenge in London relates to … home ownership. There are other factors. But I think that for young people in London, there is a responsibility on the incumbent government to address some of the factors that have made it more difficult for them to own their own home. That’s one lesson that I would draw at this stage. The other one is that the Labour Party doesn’t seem to have made anything like the progress outside of London, that you would expect an opposition to do if it was on course for victory.
The other lesson he has drawn is: “Never, ever, ever take any voter for granted anywhere because they have the power whenever they’re presented with a ballot paper to tug the string and bring you back to reality.”
Mr Gove says he is “particularly upset” to see the Conservatives lose control of Westminster Council to Labour, “because Rachael Robathan, the leader of Westminster Council is a friend of mine and I think she’s brilliant and I don’t think she deserved that.” He insists that the losses are “not completely monochrome”, with the Conservatives gaining ground in other areas of the capital.
The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill represents a dramatic climbdown from the Government’s initial plan to overhaul the planning regime, which faced a backbench revolt over its “mutant algorithm” for local housing targets.
Perhaps for similar reasons, Mr Gove is reluctant to place too much emphasis on the Conservatives’ manifesto commitment to building 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s.
“If you’re driven simply by trying to hit an abstract target in one area that bends things out of proportion, and again, one of the things that has been a problem is that people have been driven just to create units of accommodation, rather than homes and communities,” he says.
Does he consider the target unhelpful?
“No. I don’t think it’s unhelpful. But if you use it as the sole measure of success, then that’s a mistake. You mustn’t be governed by just one criteria.”
In February, the Government’s flagship Levelling Up White Paper, overseen by Mr Gove, promised improved infrastructure, research and development funding, educational outcomes and quality of life across Britain. But what evidence will the Conservatives be able to point to, come the next election, to show that they have already been delivering on their 2019 promise to “level up” the country?
“More jobs, better schools, brighter high streets,” says Mr Gove. “Those are three things that I think we need to have shown a difference on in the next few years.
In particular, more high paying jobs, high streets where you’ve got a mix of activity where the empty shop fronts have gone, where there’s a mix of people coming into properties that have been abandoned and neglected and commercial activity returning and a sense of pride and place being restored.”
Improving schools now falls under the domain of Mr Gove’s Cabinet colleague, Nadhim Zahawi. But as part of his plan to rejuvenate high streets, the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill will allow local councils to force landlords to rent out shops that have been vacant for long periods of time.
“We have a super, duper new intervention,” says Mr Gove, pausing briefly to joke that his language appears to be inadvertently “channelling the Prime Minister”.
“We will say to any vacant property [owner] after a period of time on the high street, if you can’t find a tenant, we’ll find one for you. And we will say we’re taking back control of the property, auctioning it off, we will find a tenant. That tenant could be a community group, it could be a young entrepreneur, it could be a local business that wouldn’t otherwise find a home and they get the use of that property.
“You get the rent, we’re not expropriating the property. But what you can’t do is to leave an empty property to a fester on the high street because empty properties on the high street are like missing teeth in the smile of an old friend. You only need one or two for the whole thing to be ruined.”
Countless Conservative MPs have supported companies’ calls for business rates cuts to help high street firms. Does Mr Gove, who backed such a move during his 2019 leadership bid, agree that it is part of the solution?
“We’ve got all sorts of plans for business rates but I can’t say anything because Rishi [Sunak] is in charge,” he replies carefully.
Mr Sunak has resisted calls to abolish the levy, instead announcing more frequent revaluations of properties, every three years. This week’s Queen’s Speech is understood to include a reference to reforms to modernise the system. Mr Gove is also reluctant to state whether he stands by his eye-catching 2019 proposal to replace VAT with a “lower, simpler” alternative.
“During the ill-fated 2019 Gove leadership campaign, there were some revolutionary proposals on VAT,” he jokes. “But the wise electorate that is the parliamentary Conservative Party decided they didn’t want that.”
They didn’t want VAT cuts specifically?
“They had lots of other reasons to say no,” he chuckles. “So no. The thing is that when it comes to tax policy, there are so many interrelated aspects. There’s this mantra, which I have used before – only the Chancellor talks about tax policy. But it’s for a very good reason. You don’t want to have someone walking into the cockpit of the plane and saying, change that bit, change that bit. It’s my responsibility to be somewhere else on the plane doing other stuff.”
That “other stuff” currently includes helping to oversee the Homes for Ukraine scheme for housing refugees in Britain – a system that has been criticised for long delays and administrative blunders. Mr Gove has reportedly helped to support Priti Patel in difficult meetings with mandarins at the Home Office, where the Home Secretary is said to face constant battles to drive policies through the Whitehall system.
In an interview with this newspaper last month, Ms Patel described how her plans to toughen anti-people trafficking laws sparked “sharp intakes of breath” and made “all the flags go up in government”.
Has Mr Gove now seen these problems first-hand?
“She’s a heroine,” he will only say, of his Cabinet colleague.
He is similarly effusive in his support for Boris Johnson, whose future is currently in the hands of MPs and ministers as Metropolitan Police officers continue their investigation into illicit gatherings held at Downing Street in contravention of Covid-19 rules.
Are there any circumstances under which Mr Gove believes the Prime Minister would have
to resign over the issue?
“No. I know that it’s incredibly difficult, particularly for people who made sacrifices during Covid, particularly for those who will have lost loved ones. But I think, if you’re going to make a judgement about any prime minister, you have to make that judgement in the round. And overall on Covid, on the vaccination programme, on the booster programme, on the big economic questions, on Ukraine, the Prime Minister has consistently got those big questions right.
“So I think it was right to apologise. But the idea of removing the Prime Minister over this, I think, is bonkerooney.”
Would he throw his hat in the ring for a third time if there was a vacancy?
And with that, Mr Gove is whisked back downstairs to a waiting car in Queen Mother Square, to begin his journey back from Poundbury. His entourage is smaller than the Prince’s – but only just.
- Canada Breaking News – ‘I’m really embarrassed’: Tearful Adele postpones Las Vegas residency due to Covid
- Russia threatens to incinerate drones & ‘blind’ Western satellites with laser cannons | UK News video
- Canada Breaking News – Ukrainian soldiers on front line come under attack | Kharkiv dispatch
( Information from telegraph.co.uk was used in this report. To Read More, click here )