When Theresa May gave her big housing speech today, in front of a rather strange fake brick backdrop that made the Prime Minister appear to be emerging from a chimney, she was trying to speak to two audiences. The first was those who believe, as she says she does, that the housing crisis is one of the biggest barriers to social justice in this country. The second was those who may agree with the first sentiment in abstract, but who are very worried about inappropriate development and destruction of our green and pleasant land. It’s a tricky game, playing good-cop, bad-cop all by yourself, but that’s what the Prime Minister had to do in order to announce anything at all on housing.
She set the scene by writing a very gentle and sympathetic piece in the newspaper that has campaigned most vociferously against any perceived erosions of the protections that our green and pleasant land enjoys: the Telegraph. The op-ed focused on the additional protections for the Green Belt, and a new ‘net gain’ for biodiversity, which means new housing needs to improve the natural environment. But she also wants to introduce an automatic presumption in favour of sustainable development for planning proposals in local authority areas where the number of homes being built falls below 25 per cent of the target. Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary Sajid Javid has underlined this as a threat, saying the government will be ‘breathing down’ the necks of local authorities who fail to build. But Javid hasn’t got everything he wanted, and this was underlined by the LGA’s Lord Porter, who criticised the Prime Minister for taking aim at councils when planning permission isn’t the blockage to building. Instead, Porter said today, councils should be allowed to borrow more in order to build. And that’s what Javid had wanted, only to lose out in behind-the-scenes talks.
So today’s speech was a classic mixture of caution from senior Tories about solutions to the housing crisis, and restraint as a result of parliamentary reality. It may not also help that Javid is not the most trusted of May’s ministers, after Downing Street became suspicious last summer that he was actively briefing against the Prime Minister.
There are other ministers with a reforming zeal who May feels she can better rely on, both in a personal and political sense. But a tour through their reform agendas shows how constrained everyone is.
Amber Rudd is responsible for the flagship domestic legislation of this government, the Domestic Violence Bill. As I’ve written before, this is taking much longer to come to fruition, not because of a lack of political will but because there simply hasn’t been enough spare time, energy and headspace in government to work on the legislation as a result of Brexit.
Rudd, like Jeremy Hunt at Health, is considered a May loyalist, despite her own leadership ambitions. She has also impressed those working in the sector with the level of commitment she shows to tackling domestic abuse: if you talk to most campaigners, their frustrations are largely with the slow progress as a result of wider government problems, and with proposals from the Housing, Communities and Local Government department for a funding change for refuges which could lead to many of them closing.
Hunt doesn’t have the luxury of a parliamentary majority for many of the NHS reforms he might have liked to go ahead with, but a benefit of doing his job for as long as he has means that the Health and Social Care Secretary has worked out what else he can do, and how he can achieve it. He has also learned how best to approach reform, having made some early mistakes. He overly politicised the government’s response to the Mid-Staffs row, making it more about Labour and specifically Andy Burnham and less about the importance of learning lessons for patient safety. After a while, though, the number of meetings Hunt had with people who had lost family members as a result of NHS mistakes led him to develop a zeal for patient safety that he has pursued rather doggedly ever since. When he was first getting into his stride as Health Secretary, I wrote that Hunt was keen to emulate Michael Gove’s success in the Education Department. One of the ways in which Gove has been so successful as a minister is that he identifies what he wants to do in however long he’s got in the brief, and then pursues that above everything else. This might sound pretty obvious to a lot of managers out there, but few ministers make these sorts of goals. It’s useful for Hunt that a fair bit of patient safety work includes probing cultures rather than introducing new legislation, as he can’t really do the latter.
The proof of whether May has a reforming zeal will be in whether she does follow through on her promise to reform social care. She’s renamed Hunt’s department to Health and Social Care, but the consultation on the reforms won’t take place until this summer, and it will be very consultative, rather than stating clear plans that the government wants to implement. The Prime Minister is apparently genuinely worried about the consequences of stalling on reform forever, but many of her senior colleagues are equally anxious about the possibility that any cross-party consensus on reform could fall apart very quickly if Labour sees a political advantage to be gained in opposing it, as it did in the snap election (albeit with some half-baked proposals).
As for Gove, he has the ideal job for a reforming minister, as his department has so many decisions to make as a result of, rather than in spite of, Brexit. He has worked out that the environment is a really important factor in selling Brexit as an opportunity, arguing that Britain can have even higher environmental standards once it has left the European Union. It’s a clever way to turn an arduous job into a political selling-point, but Gove is the fortunate minister in that he has an opportunity to make constant announcements, whereas even the most policy-minded of his Cabinet colleagues generally do not.