The long-anticipated reshuffle is now over, everyone has got their feet under the desks, and we’ve seen a drastic change in the landscape of Ministers across the newly renamed Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.
Whilst the headlines will be the replacement of Robert Jenrick with arch-reformer Michael Gove, if we look a little deeper, we can see an early blue print for the next General Election, nearly two years away. The reason for this is simple; we know Michael Gove is considered a ‘fixer’ in Whitehall and is a genuine political heavyweight. But we also know one of the new DLUHC Ministers, Neil O’Brien is arguably the original brains behind Levelling Up. Neil O’Brien was previously Special Adviser to George Osbourne who dreamt up the early Levelling Up work, then referred to as the ‘Northern Powerhouse’.
With both Neil O’Brien and Michael Gove at DLUHC, we have the policy thinker, alongside a Minister known for delivering reforms. What could go wrong? Helpfully Christopher Pincher remains as Housing Minister, which will at last provide some continuity for a position that had previously seen 10 different ministers in 10 years.
Of course, reshuffle or not, the challenges with DLUHC remain. Robert Jenrick came under increasing pressure from campaign groups over large-scale housing developments and the planning reforms garnered concern from both residents in the Tory heartlands and local authorities across the country. Whilst the renaming may be purely symbolic, there is the opportunity for Michael Gove to focus the department’s energies on the levelling up agenda – whether this be by encouraging greater investment to the north of England or prioritising housing next to major infrastructure projects with the associated benefit of new jobs – time will tell on which direction he chooses to take.
In unrelated yet linked news, we have a new Party Chairman in Oliver Dowden. The new Party Chairman made clear his intention on day one when he told a group of the party faithful that his job was to right now, today, start building for the next General Election. Is it too much of a coincidence that this message was delivered, and Michael Gove was given the thorniest of domestic departments?
Like any MP, accusations of NIMBYism abound within his own constituency of Surrey Heath, and we have lots of examples of the new Secretary of State intervening in local planning campaigns, but that said, he and the Prime Minister clearly understand the importance of DLUHC in the coming years.
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