Michael Gove has just shown that ‘levelling up’ is still no more than a slogan
The substance of Michael Gove’s first Conservative Party Conference speech as the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities was conspicuous by its absence. He repeated the “levelling up” slogan religiously but offered very little to back it up.
“Life expectancy for men in Glasgow is years lower than in Surrey,” Gove said. “That’s wrong.” Nobody would argue with this statement, reflective as it is of Britain’s geographic socioeconomic inequality. But after hearing his speech they might ask what, exactly, Gove plans to do about it?
Like his newly rebranded department for “Levelling Up”, it seems that Gove is a minister with an agenda in search of policies.
Boris Johnson has decided that “levelling up” is the standard by which he wants his government to be judged but offered no detail on how it will work in practice. In Manchester, Gove shed no further light beyond saying, rather vaguely, that “Levelling Up” means strengthening local leadership, raising living standards, improving public services and enhancing people’s pride in the place they live.
Perhaps the lack of clarity should not come as a surprise. Despite indicators that Britain faces a tough winter – pig farmers protesting because a combination of Brexit and Covid-19 means they cannot have their livestock slaughtered and processed properly, benefit cuts, tax hikes, energy price hikes and a petrol shortage – no big policy announcements are expected at this conference. Meanwhile, the “Levelling Up” white paper is expected by the end of the year.
But even if we put that aside, there were glaring gaps in Gove’s speech. He has taken over the housing brief at a time when thousands of worried homeowners are stuck in unsafe and unsellable homes because of the building safety crisis that has unravelled since the Grenfell Tower Fire. He did not address those impacted directly but, instead, said: “our mission will also mean…making everyone’s home safer and greener….and sharing the cost of that work more fairly.”
Could this signal a change in approach? Will the state take more responsibility for building safety remediation costs? We cannot know because Gove did not expand.
Beyond that, the housing crisis was not mentioned once nor was planning reform. Instead, Gove briefly mentioned his intention to build “new homes on neglected brownfield sites,” and ensure “a better deal for those in social housing”. How will he do this? Your guess is as good as mine.
Gove reiterated Johnson’s perennial commitment to increasing homeownership. “Making opportunity more equal is what Margaret Thatcher did when she allowed working people to buy their own homes,” Gove said, alluding to her flagship Right to Buy policy which is now widely thought to be responsible for this country’s social housing shortage. Gove’s modern plan for increasing homeownership today? He did not say.
The Conservative “levelling up” mission, according to Gove, is that everyone should have “the chance to choose their own future… own their OWN home…and live their BEST life”. It sounds like a motivational Instagram aphorism: you want to like it, but you’re not sure what it means.
Since 2016, the government department Gove now heads up has had four different secretaries of state and undergone two name changes. But one thing remains the same: Britain still has a housing emergency.