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Planning reform and the new Leninists

Has Michael Gove lost the will to change?

Artillery Row

Despite the talk of partisanship and ideological differences, America has recently voted for not much to change. This continues the trend. The era of Trump seems to be over as far as candidates are concerned — but the White House remains somewhat Trumpian with high spending, protectionism and immigration restrictions. Of course, Biden is left of Trump, but the differences in rhetoric outrun the differences in policy. Biden is more polite, but he retains the steel tariffs.

The explanation is simple. The Median Voter Theorem predicts that candidates who win elections are the ones closest to the average voter. Imagine all voters lined up on a left-wing to right-wing axis. The median voter — the one smack dab in the middle — is the critical person. Whichever candidate gets closest to that voter will win. The median voter is the fulcrum on which an election turns. Thus Biden will only get so far away from Trump: he needs to stay close to the middle.

We see this in Britain too. Kier Starmer has been courting the Mumsnet vote, saying that biological sex is real. He criticised the Just Stop Oil disruptions. He has taken a centrist position on immigration, saying that the skills shortage cannot be solved with immigration. So far, so Brexit. Indeed he has ruled out returning to the customs union. Any Labour leader criticised by Ed Miliband for their immigration rhetoric can be sure they are tacking to the centre successfully. Starmer was presumably aware of the polling showing that red wall voters wanted him to move further away from Corbynism.

Angela Rayner has taken up the role as the Labour party’s Harold MacMillan, promising to build one-hundred-thousand council houses a year. This is not a new policy, but it is something Rayner keeps messaging. She talks in vague terms about community led development, which might sound like NIMBYism by any other name, but Starmer has said he wants Labour to be the new party of homeownership. Labour is promising to do what the Tories cannot: solve the housing crisis.

There are votes available for anyone who provides a solution

I heard Michael Gove speaking on this issue recently. The key issue for planning reform, he believes, is to understand why changes have failed in the past. He has five answers: beauty, infrastructure, community, environment and democracy. Before voters will approve of new housing, those houses need to be nice to look at, come with supporting infrastructure of schools and GP surgeries, create local communities, minimise environmental damage and not trample on local democratic decisions. He went so far as to say that he would be introducing new proposals to make it “more difficult for developers to wriggle out of their responsibilities”.

So the Median Voter Theorem is alive and well. Keir Starmer is promising to keep Brexit safe, and Michael Gove is channelling his inner Angela Rayner. The candidate who is closest to the middle wins, remember, and there is currently a rush to the median voter on the issue of housing development. 

This is no surprise. According to Halifax, the average age of a first time buyer is 32, and even higher in London. Some put the average at 34. As recently as 2007, the average age was 28. In February 2005, the average house price was £150,000. In August this year it was double that. Those houses are not twice as big. They have not acquired any new productive function. Yet, someone who bought a house in 2005 has been paid to live there. They could sell today, clear their mortgage and walk away with the original value of the house. The merry-go-round keeps turning. House prices rose 13 per cent over the year to August. Homeowners are largely blind to this outrage; renters are not.

We are becoming two nations. Increasingly, people in the second half of their lives own houses that appreciate massively in value for no good reason, whilst people in the first half of their lives don’t. Voters know this is a problem. YouGov has reported since 2019 that 50 per cent of voters believe it would be better for Britain if house prices fell. When asked who would be better at helping people get onto the housing ladder, 31 per cent said Labour, 31 per cent said neither, 22 per cent didn’t know and 17 per cent said Conservatives (under Sunak). 55 per cent support building houses even if it reduces prices. 47 per cent support building in their local area. The question is who can solve this problem in a politically acceptable manner. There are votes available for anyone who provides a solution.

Prices rise along with the age of first-time buyers

Hence Michael Gove adopting Labour’s policies — but more is required. To actually get the houses built, you need the right attitude of persistence and dynamism. Gove used to have this. Once upon a time he was described as a Tory Leninist. Indeed, he quoted Lenin in the Brexit debate. When he was Education Secretary he worked with a fervour — and with a picture of Lenin in his office. He knew that time was short and that revolutions almost never take hold. His message as Education Secretary was simple: we need to build more Academies and Free Schools and raise standards. And he did that. He took on the blob, the educational establishment, and made himself immensely unpopular to achieve his aims.

I heard a lot of Angela Rayner in Gove’s speech — but not a lot of the old Michael Gove. The simplicity, the directness, the intensity was gone. It was all caveat, no mission; all Tory, no Lenin. Gove excelled at Education because it was the provision of a state service. It was widely regretted when he could not do the same thing for prisons at Justice. But he is not market minded. The planning portfolio requires either a drive to build council houses or a drive to let the market work. I heard neither from Gove. Street Votes was not mentioned. Developers were scolded for evading their responsibilities. Protecting newts was emphasised. The words I most wanted to hear — build, build, build — were missing. Where Gove talks about democracy and newts, Starmer talks about getting shovels in the ground.

All the while, more renters join the electoral roll and wages stagnate. Prices rise along with the age of first-time buyers. A new constituency is emerging. Almost all Tory seats have home ownership rates of more than 50 per cent. If the median voter is becoming more YIMBY than NIMBY, Labour will be able to offer what Michael Gove cannot. Not a well-balanced planning policy that takes democracy into account — the median voter gets that either way. Labour can offer energy, zeal, the urge to get things done, a dose of Lenin in other words. Gove no longer inspires with his missionary need to reform. Increasingly, Labour does. YIMBYs should watch Starmer carefully. Blair had “education, education, education” — perhaps Starmer will come to be the one who says “build, build, build”.

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