Michael Gove will need to build bridges - and 300,000 homes a year - as Housing Secretary

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Michael Gove - Jeff Spicer/Getty
Michael Gove - Jeff Spicer/Getty

In 2005, a newly elected MP wrote that “the countryside is not renewable” and that builders eyeing up greenfield sites for development had to understand that the environment was “a finite resource”.

Those words are likely to be quoted back to their author, Michael Gove, on a constant loop in the months and years ahead after he was handed the poisoned chalice of planning reform by Boris Johnson this week.

Whether Mr Gove proves himself to be the “shy green” he professed to be in 2014, or the man promising “diggers in the ground and homes for all” in 2016 will help define not only his own legacy but also the Conservatives’ fortunes at the next general election.

Grassroots Tories will hope he turns out to be the former, the man who has repeatedly spoken out against new developments in his Surrey Heath constituency where they risked altering the “character” of their surroundings.

Mr Johnson, of course, will be reminding the new Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government that when Mr Gove ran for party leader in 2016 (brutally ending Mr Johnson’s own leadership bid) he promised to build “hundreds of thousands of new homes a year … come what may” and would “not take no for an answer”.

The Prime Minister has given the job to Mr Gove because of his track record in forcing through reform in his previous roles, and possibly because it will force him to make unpopular decisions that will kill off any lingering hopes he might have of yet another leadership bid.

For Mr Gove’s part, he will be trying to convince himself he can thread the narrowest of needles by building the government target of 300,000 homes a year without the need to carve up chunks of the countryside.

As long ago as 2001, years before he entered Parliament, Mr Gove was supporting the idea of winning back young voters by building affordable housing for key workers. The idea was put forward in a book called A Blue Tomorrow, written by Mr Gove and other Tory rising stars.

In 2006, within a year of becoming an MP, Mr Gove was made shadow housing spokesman by David Cameron, having set out his ideas about planning in an essay for the Social Market Foundation think tank.

In it, as well as pointing out that the countryside is “not renewable”, he added: “Unless business shows that it is thinking seriously about sustainability it risks undermining the foundations of future prosperity and human flourishing.”

It was a theme he returned to in a 2013 speech, when he echoed the sentiments of the Prince of Wales by saying development must “lift up the soul” rather than being a blot on the landscape.

He said: “I believe that we cannot think of our built environment without thinking of beauty. Many of the most beautiful vistas in the United Kingdom are beautiful because of building.”

Nor was this just talk. In October last year he spoke at a planning appeal hearing in his Surrey Heath constituency against a development of 44 homes (of which 40 per cent were classed as “affordable”) on a site earmarked for housing by the Conservative-led council.

He argued that the scheme in Bagshot would “alter the character of the village for the worse” and even helped the local protest group with its fundraising.

The previous year he said he was “deeply concerned” about plans to build a 1,500-home garden village on the site of Fairoaks airport, and in 2017 he wrote to the government’s Planning Inspectorate to raise objections to a plan for 95 homes in the village of Ash Green.

Among the factors he highlighted were increased “traffic dangers, vehicle noise and pollution”, which apply to almost any new development.

And therein lies the problem for Mr Gove.

Residents routinely object to new developments, particularly in small towns and villages, for the very reasons cited by Mr Gove in his objections to housebuilding in his own constituency. MPs know that they, too, must object to some developments if they are to keep voters happy, particularly in marginal seats.

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