News: 7 October 2021By Gove, he’s got it

With planning and housing now in the hands of a new Secretary of State, what’s he going to do with the department?

Who is Michael Gove and why should you care? Doer, innovator, big brain thinker, backstabber, disruptor, dancer – he’s gained plenty of labels during his career and he’s put a new one on the department we care about the most. The curiously named ‘Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities’.

As planning partners with a combined 60 plus years of experience, this is the first time we’ve seen a department named after a slogan. The cynic in us says, ‘okay, buckle up because this is going to be a bumpy ride’. But we’re curious too. We all know that there are fundamental challenges across planning and housing because we’re not building enough and we’re constantly in a fight between ‘people have a right to a home they can enjoy and afford’ versus ‘greedy developers concreting over the countryside’.

It’s a tough one for politicians. Just ask Peter Fleet, the defeated Conservative candidate for Chesham & Amersham. 

We won’t solve the issues in an article like this but we can point to what interests us and how we see things.

As always with Barton Willmore, we’re looking for solutions. We don’t want to stand on the side-lines throwing stones. We want to contribute to collective improvement that, in turn, helps us to achieve the goals we value as a society.

Partner, Robin Shepherd

E: robin.shepherd@bartonwillmore.co.uk
 

“My first reaction was oh no, not another change. We’re seen so much in planning and the department has been a revolving door for ministers. Claudio ‘The Tinkerman’ Ranieri has nothing on Jenrick, Brokenshire, Boles, Pickles et al. They all wanted to make their mark and they all had ideas to tweak the system (or even to rip it up and start again!). I’m all for making it better, but we must also recognise the need for stability and predictability. Development – whether housing or any other type – is a long-term game and needs certainty. It just doesn’t help investment decisions, or the Council Chamber, to be constantly re-writing the rules. First and foremost, I’d like to see Gove clarify and consolidate not brainstorm and innovate. Not yet at least.

“Then it’s about consequences for me. Housing is not something for housebuilders and planners to witter on about. It’s a fundamental requirement for a fair and functioning society. It frustrates me when people say ‘Gove has been demoted to Housing’ or ‘this is a philosophical argument between development versus the environment’. No it’s not. If we’re not providing homes, we’re failing as a society. I hope that one thing Gove can do, big hitter as he is, is make this connection in parliament and get more understanding of this so that, in turn, he can get more money to fund the system. Local authorities and planning departments are crying out for resources and they are feeling battered. It doesn’t matter what changes we make, without good people making good decisions, it all falls over. We must deal with the twin issues of resourcing and ranking – providing homes and having a functioning planning system to enable that needs to be at the top of the Government’s agenda.

“Once we have that working better – and assuming he lasts longer than his predecessor – I would welcome a closer look at regional and national planning. It’s a firm view of mine that clearer frameworks will enable better conversations with everyone around what local authorities want, need and will deliver – planning benefits from people working together. I would personally like to see firmer leadership in terms of national and regional plans, accepting of course the benefits of devolution and the importance of local decision-making, responsibility and accountability.”

Partner, Justin Kenworthy

E: justin.kenworthy@bartonwillmore.co.uk
 

 

“I’m told that Michael Gove is not a man to hang about so my invitation to him as he steps into his new department is to look at how long it takes to get a planning permission and then to start on site. I think it’s shocking – and it’s certainly not consistent with ambitions to attract investment, build back better, or create a sustainable society and economy. For many of my clients, I advise a six-month pre app and then another six months to get a decision notice – and that’s not counting the JR period and time required to discharge conditions before developers can get on site. It’s simply too slow. So please Mr Gove, let’s acknowledge that and act to get some speed and predictability on timescales back into the planning system.

“For better and quicker decision making, we also need better skills and resources. And I mean at officer and committee level. It’s been said before but I’ll say it again because a new man at the top might be listening: we must resource, train, support and skill up planning officers and planning committee members. It’s disrespectful of their responsibilities and counter-productive to the process not to. If we agree that housing and planning are important – and I think we all do – we must back that up by investing in resources and training. Expertise and staffing levels within local planning authorities matter. Let’s put a premium on it and invest it in. I think I remember Mr Gove saying something like that when he was in Education so here’s hoping he remembers!”

Partner, Lucy Wood

E: lucy.wood@bartonwillmore.co.uk
 

“For me, it has to be about delivery. What is Michael Gove actually going to do? When he was at DEFRA he delivered on his promise to get the “world leading” Environment Bill drafted but it then spent months being bounced backwards and forwards in the Commons and the Lords. In his new post at DLUHC, I’d like to see him use his ‘man of action’ influence to calm the disagreements between peers and ministers to get that Bill adopted as law so that we can all move on with some certainty. Requirements such as biodiversity net gain, more stringent air quality targets and waste management principles are key to housing consent, delivery and the levelling up agenda.

“With COP26 so close now, he has to signal what he and his department will do. Delivering net zero development is costly, particularly in the short term, but has so much economic and social opportunity aligned with the desire to build much needed houses and level up the country. What can Gove do to push a level playing field, give certainty to investors and housebuilders, including for smaller companies and sites where sustainable delivery is only viable at scale? Planning is no place for standards on energy efficiency and renewable energy generation and storage in buildings and communities. That should be the status quo, mandated by the Building Regulations and made achievable through joined up infrastructure planning. With clear expectations in place, the market will react and drive innovation and affordability.

“Let planning be about placemaking. Homes, jobs, schools are where behavioural change can happen almost without us noticing. Where the healthy and sustainable option is the obvious one.”

Where does this leave us then? We think it’s clear. Mr Gove has a lot to do but he has an industry that wants to work with him to succeed. He also has a moment where, slogan or not, he is responsible for the Government’s signature policy of levelling up.

We hope he’s open to listening and we’ll be sending him our ideas. We’re ready to play our part. And we’re ready to support our clients in being part of a successful and, let’s hope, collaborative way of working with the department and with all stakeholders across the country.

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