• Development Intelligence

An open letter to new Secretary of State Michael Gove

Dear Michael,

Many congratulations on your appointment as Secretary of State at the freshly renamed Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. I’m sure your civil servants are hard at work briefing you on the many challenges in front of you, but it is clear that the current planning reform proposals are one of your biggest headaches, hence your so called ‘pause and review’ in your first days in the job. And I’m also pretty sure that the Treasury will keep telling you, to quote Liam Byrne in that rather prophetic and rather too true handover note from 2010, “there is no money.”

But here’s the thing: none of your civil servants nor any of your SPADs nor anyone in the Number 10 policy team has ever bought a piece of land, drafted a planning application, submitted a planning application, or achieved a planning permission. Including Jack Airey, one of Dom’s last remaining “weirdos”.

So – crazy idea, we know – maybe we can offer you some advice from the planning front line, where we have been intimately involved in those activities for longer than Jack has been in long trousers.

Problem 1

Your civil servants will tell you, with endless very pretty PowerPoints and graphs, that ‘if we could just get these dammed housebuilders to achieve more consents and build them out more quickly then we’d solve the problem, and this will help the Government look good in time for the next General Election’. Bit of advice for you on this one: sack anyone who says that and then sack them twice more just to make sure. Because it is not just 100% wrong, it’s been 100% wrong for more than 50 years but no one in your new ‘DLHC’ and its many previous incarnations seems to have spotted that. And, Michael, if you keep flogging that dead horse you’ll get nowhere, like Robert, James, Sajid, Greg and Eric before you. To help you understand this, we’ve amended one of your team’s very pretty PowerPoint slides:

Michael, your razor-sharp intellect will have noticed the sneaky three additions we’ve made to the slide. We’ve superimposed a line showing your Government’s target of 300k homes per annum, one showing the average delivery rate of the private sector and a big, shaded area showing where the actual under delivery has been: public sector homebuilding. You can see that even in the dreamiest of dreamy scenarios, the private sector is never realistically going to deliver 300k homes per annum, possibly ever but certainly not for any sustained period. If only half the home building industry is turning up to the party, you’re never going to hit your target for the many consistent years you need to make a material difference to the housing crisis.

So, you’re going to have to take Liam’s ‘no money’ note back to the Treasury and get some funding PDQ to start the public sector actually building homes at scale. Wild idea: call it ‘levelling up’ or something like that. Make Homes England deliver the missing homes, or a new body, or local authorities, or housing associations or put contracts out for the private sector to do it for you or a combination of some or all of these. But you must get the public sector ‘building back better’. (Snappy slogan, eh? Just thought of it. Use it if you want, no charge).

And as a side note, don’t have any truck with the ‘they’re all just land banking’ chorus of loons. You’ve had eight separate inquiries or reviews into this in the last few years, the most recent by Oliver Letwin, and in essence they’ve all come to the same conclusion: land banking is located just next to the unicorns at the end of the NIMBY rainbow. Home builders make money from selling homes not sitting on consents. But they will only build what they can sell at a commercial profit, so depending on the economic cycle, fluctuating demand and with an eye to absorption rates, they build out their consents at the fastest rate they can sell them. It has and always will be thus. Whereas the public sector can build and sell all year, every year, whatever the economic conditions. See? We’re back to where we started. The public sector must build homes at scale alongside the private sector for you to have any hope of hitting your target.

Problem 2

As supportive of home building as central government always is, another problem you have is the lever you pull to actually deliver new homes has local authorities on the end of it. Untrained councillors scared and/or driven by local voters’ NIMBY pressure, advised by officers who are taught to only understand how to say ‘no’ and are incentivised to never make a career threatening brave decision ever, means councils and their implementation of national and local planning policy are one of the greatest brakes on home building numbers.

So, what to do? Here are some ideas: make all councillors who sit on a planning committee, by law, attend a short RTPI-sponsored course on national planning policy and their local plan. And whilst you’re at it, double the number of planning officers because the current guys and girls are swamped. And introduce some jeopardy: loser pays. When councils lose an appeal, automatically award costs against them for wasting everybody’s time and money. But likewise do the same for applicants. You’ll reduce the number of appeals and the number of political refusals at a stroke.

Problem 3

Now you’re going to have to be brave on the planning bill, Michael. But ‘you the man’, right? You shook up education, justice, the Brexit deal etc, you’re the shining example of the minister who gets stuff done, bashes heads together, changes Government thinking and delivery. In any case, Boris loves a good U-turn; they’re all the rage, we hear.

You’re already implementing some of the ideas from the planning white paper, like design codes, reforming CIL, making beauty a codified element of planning (good luck with that one, BTW). But if there is one thing we have all painfully relearnt so clearly with the white paper debacle, it’s this: revolutions fail, evolution wins out. So, change tack. Junk most of the contents of the bill. It’s just going to cause you enormous political unrest on the back benches and in the southern shires, fuel the fears over the so called ‘blue wall’, and not really deliver anything much that is going to shake up local authority delivery or increase housing numbers appreciably in the short, medium, or long term.

The DI team have been travelling around the planning reform buoy for around thirty years, with one secretary of state after another from both main parties, and Michael there simply is no big bang which is going to change things successfully. What works is setting a clear and strategic policy course and then keep making annual, tactical tweaks to the system to keep the ball rolling in the right direction. Some of those tweaks could be some or all of the ideas above, or other better ones. But, Michael, junk the big bang bill. It just won’t work.

Good luck,

The DI Team