Beyond those with borderline obsessive interest in the workings of housing and / or local government policy, changes at MHCLG following a reshuffle rarely make a big splash.
Not this time. From a domestic policy perspective, the shake-up of the MHCLG ministerial team is arguably the most noteworthy part of the PM’s reshuffle. By placing Conservative heavyweight, Michael Gove, as Communities Secretary, supported by new ministers in Neil O’Brien (who has previously been the PM’s “levelling-up” adviser) and rising star Kemi Badenoch (fresh from a stint at HMT), MHCLG is being placed at forefront of policy delivery during the next stage of this administration, which has its eye on the next election.
Gove and his new team will take control of two critical areas for this administration – both of which have become somewhat thorny issues. First, having spent the past 18 months pushing out its ‘levelling-up’ narrative, pressure is building on the government to deliver – to demonstrate what “levelling-up” is in action and what tangible outcomes it will deliver for communities across the country. As a former “levelling-up” adviser to the PM and with a wealth of think-tank experience focused on this agenda behind him, O’Brien’s ministerial appointment is key. Expect far greater attention to be focused on detailed policy development and implementation to make good on Boris’s “levelling-up” rhetoric.
The issue of planning reform poses the second challenge for the new Secretary of State and his team. Having previously set out proposals to transform the planning process and boost the delivery of new homes, the government has been dragged into a battle with backbench MPs and grassroots activists who are less than enamoured with the prospect of further development in their local areas. Reports of plans being watered down have abounded in recent weeks.
It is on the issue of housing and planning that Gove’s appointment is interesting. The new Communities Secretary has a reputation as one of the big Conservative reformers. Crucially, in previous ministerial stints – at Defra, the Department for Education and the Ministry of Justice – Gove oversaw the introduction of reform programmes that went beyond ‘traditional’ conservative approaches. Gove’s challenge now will be to take this reforming zeal and apply it towards housing – delivering on promises to boost supply and affordability, whilst keeping the backbenches on board. If the new ministerial team can move the party towards a more relaxed position on development, they will have succeeded where many have tried – and failed – before.
MHCLG may not be the first department that springs to mind whenever a reshuffle comes around, but in putting in place his new team the PM has set great expectations that it will deliver on core policy ambitions. It can become one of the key drivers of domestic policy in the coming period.