Remember, remember the first weeks of November,

DLUHC sure did a lot,

The Secretary of State to Street Votes did take,

But to the Marina and the Tulip did not*

I am writing this on November 15th, exactly one month after Michael Gove was appointed as our new Secretary of State**, and it has certainly been an eventful few weeks. 

In the last fortnight, the Secretary of State has given evidence to the HCLG Select Committee and released no less than nine called-in or recovered appeal decisions. So what, if anything, does this period of frenetic activity tell us about our new Secretary of State? What kind of Minister is Mr Gove shaping up to be?

Select Committee Evidence

There have already been several excellent summaries of the Secretary of State's evidence to the Select Committee. This article by Planning Resource is perhaps the most comprehensive, although I must admit that my personal favourite is this piece by Andrew Black.*!

Overall, I was left with the impression that the Secretary of State intends to thread the proverbial needle of planning reform extremely carefully. He clearly knows that steps need to be taken to increase housing numbers, but also that very careful political management will be needed to get the proposed reforms through.  As such, it looks as if the less contentious elements of the planning white paper - such as digitisation of the planning system and some elements of simplification for local plans - are likely to be here to stay. Others, however, such as the method for calculating housing need or changes to how planning applications are consulted upon, may be in for significant further refinement. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that Gove was in Cabinet when the Localism Act was born, the Secretary of State also appears to be committed to the principles of localism. During his appearance before the Select Committee, he declared his love for the idea of "Street Votes", which appear to be a form of extremely fine grain neighbourhood planning, as well as expressing strong support for community involvement in the planning system. Equally unsurprisingly, the former Environment Minister, also agreed that Net Zero should be at the heart of the planning system. 

Perhaps a little more unusual, was the note of caution that the Secretary of State sounded over the role of permitted development rights in the planning system. When questioned on how PD rights fit with the rest of the planning system, Mr Gove confirmed that this was under review and that they were thinking about the problems caused by PD schemes "not having to contribute to section 106 and the infrastructure levy". 

Recovered & Called-In Appeals

Whilst pulling themes out of appeal decisions is never an exact science, I am going to attempt it nonetheless:

  1. Firstly, I can't help but be struck by just how scrupulously the Secretary of State followed the advice of his Inspectors. Of the nine decisions issued this month, not a single one departed from the recommendation of the Planning Inspectorate. This is perhaps understandable, given the sheer number of decisions issued in his first few weeks of office, but is a change of approach from previous incumbents in the role, who were more than willing to go against the advice of their inspectors on occasion. 
  2. Despite the vague ambiguity of  pinning down what is or is not 'beautiful', DLUHC really weren't kidding when it comes to embedding 'beauty' in our planning system. Two of the most notable refusals that have been handed down, the Brighton Marina scheme, and the Tulip were based (at least in part) on design grounds. When refusing the Brighton Marina scheme, the Housing Minister, Christopher Pincher stated that it  “lacks the exuberance and ambition that the best of Brighton’s seaside buildings exhibit”, whilst relying on the scheme's lack of compliance with local design guidance and the government’s National Design Guide. The Tulip was also found not to comply with the National Design Guide. In fact, the design of the building was given significant weight against the proposal in the planning balance. 
  3. The newly re-named department also seems to be taking 'Levelling Up' seriously, with two major employment schemes, being granted in the green belt, near St Helens, in part, because of a finding that St Helens had "fallen behind its immediate neighbours and other areas in the Liverpool City Region” and “a major shift to bring forward new attractive employment sites is needed to halt or reverse this position”. A third employment scheme in the area was refused, however, as in that instance the impacts of the development on the green belt were held to outweigh the economic benefits of the scheme. A housing scheme in Warrington was also granted in part because the Secretary of State  gave "further significant weight to the employment created during construction and thereafter, and the spending in the local economy. The provision of sports facilities, a local centre and open spaces attract significant weight." and finally;
  4. The protection of heritage assets also seems to be a hot-button issue, as this factored into both the Tulip decision and the refusal of a large housing scheme in the Medway.

So what has Gove's first month in office taught us? Well, that rather depends on how you look at it. On the one hand, the Secretary of State seems to be playing things very close to his chest, with few firm indications as to their exact policy priorities. On the other, the information that we do have so far, it looks as if DLUHC is shaping up to be a bit of a "Ronseal" department - the intention seems to be to do exactly what it says on the tin. 

*Yes, I am aware that the Housing Minister made these decisions on his behalf, but that simply did not scan. 

**I very nearly called this post 'Gove Tuesday'... and I am still not convinced that I made the right decision on this one

*! a fact which probably reveals my age.... as the pop culture reference really speaks to me