But which is the real Michael Gove?
Michael Gove began his keynote speech on housing this week with a reminder.
“Housing policy – the building of new homes, the stewardship of existing properties, the planning of our towns, the fundamental landscape of our lives – requires long-term thinking,” he said. “And a long-term plan.”
Which is ironic when you think about it, given that this Parliament has at most 18 months to run and the hot money at Westminster is on a spring election next year. So, there may – or may not – be a change of Government in less than one Parliamentary session and before the new financial year.
Who knows? The rest of Mr Gove’s speech, however, needs to be read in that light.
It would be easy to pick holes in it, but we need to celebrate some progress, despite that.
First, let’s at least celebrate the ambition of “Regeneration of 20 places”, take a deep breath and not mention there are many hundreds of places that need regenerating in England, let alone the whole UK.
Taken at face value, Mr Gove appears keen to rip up the urban sprawl ambitions of New Labour since 2002, the Coalition from 2020-15 and his own Conservative government since then and recover at least some of the good ideas followed by governments from the mid-1990s until the government’s bosses in the Treasury ordered their demise 20 years ago.
Some of the things Mr Gove proposed will have his erstwhile colleague Eric Pickles rumbling with rage. So hearty cheers for the commitment to concentrating development where it’s needed, can be located most sustainably and can make maximum use of existing infrastructure, our cities.
While it’s maybe a bit arch to claim a 10% increase in city population would add £20bn to UK GDP, one section should be engraved on the wall at DLUHC.
“Failing to densify means longer commutes, a longer wait for a plumber or ambulance, and more vehicle journeys leading to congestion and pollution, “said Mr Gove.
“At present, only 40% of people living in our great cities can get into the city centre in 30 minutes by public transport, compared to over two-thirds of the population in comparable European cities. And we would not only be more productive, we would have an enhanced quality of life. People living and working in close proximity to one another is a key feature of the most creative, productive and attractive cities in the world and in particular a feature of the most attractive parts of those cities.”
Amen to all of that, and to the realisation that denser cities have lower greenhouse gas emissions than the suburbs and exurbs builders love to build. But please remember that you can overdo densification. Call it “gentle”, “goldilocks” or just “appropriate” density if you like; but remember our Victorian and Edwardian ancestors knew how to get density right in cities, towns and even villages.
Most traditional cities’ cores are already fairly dense; it’s usually the outer suburbs where potential exists.
Amen to greater support for brownfield development. It’s six or seven years since the wonks at the Treasury realised that, to maximize house building, you need maximal brownfield building. The 2012 National Planning Policy Framework had pretty much left us with greenfield-first guidance, but subsequent efforts to rail back achieved little.
We need a robust commitment to brownfield-first, and not just for housing either.
But please, no more permitted development. You don’t want to turn our cities into shanty towns and a well-resourced planning system with good guidance is quite capable of achieving the outcomes you want.
But where are these 20 places to be regenerated? And where won’t be?
Dig into the speech and hack your way through the programme to raise productivity (undefined) and you get to: “That is why, in our programme of 20 city-centre renewals, the Midlands and particularly in the north of England, are our future focus”.
Good to see a commitment to mass transit for West Yorkshire and a handful of other big city projects. But where is the commitment to regeneration outside the big cities (often the least in need of it)?
Apparently it’s limited to Barrow, which is certainly in need of an economic boost, but is now threatened with a visit from the Cabinet secretary and an “elite civil service team”, as if it didn’t have enough problems already.
But from there on, so far as planning is concerned, the speech falls into the hands of the BuildBuildBuild mob.
“Supercharging Europe’s science capital” isn’t some plan to move the UK back into the European science mainstream. It’s a mad revival of the eastern end of the cataclysmically awful Oxford-Cambridge Arc scheme which saw millions wasted on planning for the type of sprawl condemned earlier in the speech.
Now another five million quid is being dolled out to Homes England to lead destructive plans for turning the small and already overheated, unsustainable and water-starved city of Cambridge and the rich agricultural land of its green belt into a massive development opportunity.
No, Mr Gove, there are many reasons why Cambridge and Oxford in 2021 had “just” 300,000 square feet of lab space under development. One is that they’re hopelessly unsustainable places for mass development and we should be looking to the rest of the UK’s excellent universities to lead scientific growth.
We will return to the subject of Cambridge and the pious nonsense about 250,000 new homes – plus a science quarter – at gentle density on brownfield sites. If that’s a serious proposal, think rather about Dubai’s 263-storey, 828 metre high tower – a sort of Burj Khalifa-on-Cam.
Planning in the rest of the speech goes rapidly downhill, but I’ll finish here just by looking at what should be a welcome section on “Communities taking back control of their future”. Sadly, it’s nothing of the kind. It’s a paean to garden towns and villages which involve communities losing control of their future.
If you’re really going to promote them, Mr Gove, you might as well dump the first part of your speech in the office wastebin.
And we most certainly don’t need a “supersquad of expert planners backed by £13m of new funding” to “unlock” housing developments.
“This team will first land in Cambridge to turbocharge development that contributes to our vision for the city, but it will also look at sites across our eight investment zones in England,” warned Mr Gove.
Instead of this “supersquad”, their eyes ablaze with profitable sprawl housing construction, please ensure every local planning authority has the planners it needs to secure some kind of urban renaissance and tell the Treasury to end its 20-year vendetta against planning.
Meanwhile everybody, bear in mind the likely end-games of this Parliament and politicians’ need to be all-things-to-all-people.