There’s good news and bad news from the shake-up in government ministers and ministries that was presented to the nation last week.
First the good news: Christopher Pincher MP remains as Minister of Housing, a post he took up in February last year just before lockdown began. Let’s hope he really is a survivor and doesn’t fall foul of the wholesale reorganisation of the department in which he works.
For in place of Robert Jenrick, who was Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, we have Michael Gove, who started in that post on Wednesday but by the weekend had become head of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. So after less than a week the emphasis on his department’s focus had changed and housing was quite literally out of the driving seat, possibly as front passenger but equally likely to have taken a back seat.
Levelling up, we have long been told, is what this government is all about. So reaching its seemingly impossible target of 300,000 new homes a year might be quietly let slip particularly as Jenrick’s proposed planning system reforms had been blamed for losing Amersham and Chesham to the Lib Dems in a by-election that should have been a dead cert for the Tories.
Maybe that’s politik-speak, though, because what really bored a hole through the Tory majority was most likely opposition to HS2, making tracks through the Home Counties and potentially laying waste to much more political capital than it is cherished countryside.
So Gove’s attention is likely to be far more on levelling up, which the Tories promised and Red Wall former Labour voters will hold them to as the price for switching political allegiance to Johnson’s candidates in the December 2019 General Election.
Gove will also have to decide who is best among his ministerial team to deliver what Johnson demands and it may be that Pincher has the qualities to do that. So even though the incumbent seems to have survived, he may yet switch roles within the department.
Let’s hope that doesn’t happen as there is plenty to be going on with, particularly as the Treasury minister who looked after stamp duty and the like was dismissed, too.
Pincher, who has time to build up more knowledge than the majority of his 17 predecessors since 1997, will need to ensure that there aren’t too many reforms to destabilise the property market in the way the stamp duty holiday has, driving rampant house price inflation through its combination of seemingly cheaper purchases and buyers with more cash to fritter as they have been starved of big spending opportunities such as new cars and holidays during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Gove has a reputation as a hard hitter whatever ministry he has served in; someone who gets his own way and puts in place the teams he wants, not necessarily matching those he is given. We are promised a fast ride ahead, perhaps also a bumpy one, as only three years remain before Johnson must fight to retain the keys to No 10.
And he has given Gove the poisoned chalice of delivering levelling up in time to get that victory. Fingers crossed that doesn’t deflect attention from housing, a topic that is apparently already slipping down the departmental agenda.