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By Graham Norwood

Editor, LAT & LLT

Graham Awards


Industry Views - Michael Gove and His Dead Cat

In retrospect, it was perhaps inevitable that the infamous dead cat would come into the debate over government housing targets and planning reform.

For those unfamiliar with the term, the ‘dead cat’ in politics is something unexpected and shocking thrown into public debate to divert attention away from a more serious issue.

A recent example is the furore over Angela Rayner’s legs which came just as Conservative backbenchers were questioning the Prime Minister’s competence in the Commons, and as the country was being reminded of Partygate.


So it was just days ago Housing Secretary Michael Gove, under pressure over the government’s under-achievement on house building, decided to steal the headlines with - of all things - his idea of neighbourhood votes on individual homeowners’ planning applications.

Building, no doubt, on the government’s extraordinary achievement at bringing the country together through the Brexit referendum, it now wants to repeat the same division and discord at street level with neighbours voting for or against an extension.

Woe betide the owner seeking consent if he or she has a troublesome child, a Green Party poster in the window, or an unsightly caravan parked in the drive for nine months of the year - his or her popularity with the neighbours will be low, so there goes any chance of winning consent for the dormer in the roof.

This stunt was, of course, a bid to divert attention from Gove walking away from the fundamental planning reforms advocated by his predecessor and his tentative shift from his government’s previous target of achieving 300,000 new homes a year by the mid 2020s.

This failure risked overshadowing the Queen’s Speech, so Gove needed to bring out the dead cat to create a new focus of discussion.

Not that there was nothing to like in that part of the Queen’s Speech dedicated to Gove’s department.

For example, design codes to allow local communities to have a greater say in aspects of layout, a new infrastructure levy and bank, and making the planning system speedier through digitisation are all worthy and welcome ideas.

But what Gove’s dead cat attempts to disguise is less the government’s poor record on housing delivery (a poor record it shares with Labour over recent decades, of course).

No - what the dead cat attempts to conceal is that the government appears to have no ‘big idea’ left on housing at all.

Even with a thumping majority in the Commons, the scale of which Boris Johnson is highly unlikely to enjoy again, the government cannot steer through the fundamental house building aspirations it started this parliament in 2019.

To remind people of what the government had wanted, as recently as last summer…

-   the replacement of case-by-case decision making by local planning officials with strategic zoning of land as being for growth, renewal or protection;

-  each council would have to plan for a share of homes from the government's annual house building target for England, avoiding the concentration of development in only some locations;

- the 300,000 annual targets would be enshrined in law rather thanking a mere aspiration.

All three measures were ambitious, transparent and were broadly welcomed by the industry as being necessary to create the homes required. The only group that appeared not to like the proposals were the government backbenchers who put their own majorities before the needs of first time buyers, renters and families wanting homes.

So politics have now overcome good sense and we have instead broad brush and rather meaningless desires to have better built and more attractive homes - and a bonkers neighbourhood voting idea which appears designed to sew disharmony.

As a result, no one is purring with satisfaction. It’s time for the dead cat to be put back in its box.

*Editor of Letting Agent Today and Landlord Today, Graham can be found tweeting about all things property at @PropertyJourn


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