The last two months of ministerial appointments and resignations have been enough to send even the most seasoned of Westminster observers into a tailspin.
The Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) has been no exception to the churn. Even before the current period of instability, the cycle of merry-go-round hiring and firing at the ministry formerly known as Housing, Communities and Local Government was longstanding: there have been twenty housing ministers since 1997, and three secretaries of state since July.
Liz Truss, for all her talk of Investment Zones and her commitment to building Northern Powerhouse Rail, was expected to have been cooler on the levelling up project than her immediate predecessor, Boris Johnson, who put it at the heart of the Conservaives’ 2019 manifesto. We will of course never know how committed she really was. By comparison, on his second day as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak stood on the doorstep of No 10 Downing Street and uttered the words “levelling up”. Some are yet to be convinced, however, that the fiscally orthodox former chancellor can deliver on closing our gaping wealth, health and productivity divides. The DLUHC has since seen another shake-up, with Michael Gove back at the helm, but some of Truss’s appointments are still there. So who’s in and who’s out?
OUT: Simon and Greg Clark(e)
Liz Truss’s appointment of Simon Clarke as levelling up secretary signalled a shift in direction away from the more interventionist, “one nation” tendencies of Gove – a Tory “big beast” and effective Whitehall operator seen as imbuing the role with the seriousness that the UK’s extreme regional disparities deserved.
In contrast Clarke warned of the need to scale back ambitions, and told councils that their levelling up funding pot applications would have to be “resized for inflation”. Clarke, who took over from Greg Clark (who performed the role briefly in Johnson’s end-of-days cabinet in July and August of this year) was a member of the Free Market Forum, a project organised the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) think tank that “refocuses the political debate, shifting attention towards free enterprise and social freedom”.
For those connected to the IEA – a right-wing, “classical liberal” pressure group, which recently shot to infamy as one of the most vociferous advocates of the calamitous Truss-Kwarteng approach to fiscal policy – there are few problems that can’t be solved by some mixture of lower taxes, a smaller state, spending cuts, deregulation and privatisation of public assets.
IN: Lee Rowley and Dehenna Davison
Alongside Clarke, two other junior ministers associated with the Free Market Forum were promoted to the DLUHC under Truss and remain in Rishi Sunak’s team: Lee Rowley, a proto-Red Waller who ended eight decades of Labour representation in North East Derbyshire in 2017; and Dehenna Davison, a rising star of the 2019 intake who ended over a century of drought for the Conservative Party in Bishop Auckland, a County Durham coalfield seat. Both MPs are listed as parliamentary supporters of the Forum.
Rowley acted as co-chair of another IEA vehicle, Freer, and has written pamphlets for the group, including Next Generation Capitalism. The extended polemic rails against “the failed creed of socialism”, lamenting the lack of faith young Britons have in liberal economics, replete with references to Soviet gulags and Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela.
Davison’s remit includes responsibility for administering local growth funding and striking devolution deals. She was a member of the influential European Research Group of Conservative MPs, committed to the hardest forms of Brexit and a bonfire of European “red tape”, though she is reported to have now left the group. She was co-chair of the Free Market Forum, though its website no longer lists her as such. In June 2021 she joined Nigel Farage as a presenter of the GB News Sunday morning show Political Correction.
Gove is back, with new arrivals
Gove has returned as Levelling Up Secretary, having been reappointed by Sunak. He had even won plaudits from senior Labour figures like the Manchester Metro Mayor Andy Burnham for his record in the job. Burnham told Andrew Marr that he was a man who, for better or worse, “got things done”. For many regional development policy watchers Gove’s reappointment was seen as good news.
Alongside him, Lucy Frazer has been appointed as housing minister. Like a quarter of her Conservative colleagues, Frazer is a landlord. Her voting record includes opposition to secure tenancies for life and support for charging market rents to high earners in social housing, as well as support for ending the eviction bans put in place during the pandemic.
Also joining the DLUHC, with responsibility over the private rented sector and supported housing, is Felicity Buchan, a former investment banker and Treasury minister.
What do the new appointments mean for levelling up?
If the policy papers of the Free market Forum or the IEA are anything to go by, levelling up under their aligned parliamentarians might become an exercise in encouraging regional entrepreneurialism and allowing buccaneering businesses to prosper, free from the long arm of the state. There’s no need to interfere when market forces can deliver. The Forum’s solution to the housing crisis, which falls under the DLUHC’s remit, is predictably focused on freeing up the ability of private developers to build. This would involve watering down planning laws and building regulations, and getting rid of the powers of local authorities to block construction, thereby improving competition by making it easier for new building companies to enter the market and boost supply.
This would represent a continuation of the work of Robert Jenrick, the former secretary of state at the department. His efforts to streamline the UK’s arduous planning processes, currently slowing down not only housing but also infrastructure projects, were met by fierce opposition from Conservative MPs representing traditional Tory “Blue Wall” shires. Boris Johnson’s promise to implement “the most radical reforms of our planning system since the end of the Second World War” died in the fields of Chesham and Amersham, after a by-election handed this safe Conservative seats to the Liberal Democrats – a result largely attributed to opposition to relaxing planning rules.
When he took over the department from Jenrick, Gove put paid to the planning reforms, dropping the overhaul in favour of a more streamlined proposal that would amount, according to the Home Builders Federation, to “a charter for nimbys”. This month, however, Gove insisted at a Centre for Policy Studies conference that planning reform was “not dead”.
It remains to be seen how this dynamic between “classical liberal” advocates of radical planning reform and the more cautious planning approach and interventionist politics of Gove might play out. Some will surely hope that a revitalised, dynamic private sector will pick up the slack and levelling up the regions in a way that the state can no longer afford. With a recession looming and business confidence low, that is unlikely. And the budgetary constraints imposed by the Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, will surely dampen the vision of even the most ambitious members of the team. After all, of all government departments, the DLUHC (and its former iterations) has undergone the biggest reductions to its budgets since 2010.