"How did Morrissey put it?" asks Paul Hackett, former regeneration adviser to John Prescott and director of left-leaning think tank the Smith Institute, archly. "This Charming Man — those were the words." Though a back-handed compliment, Hackett’s description of housing and planning minister Gavin Barwell reflects the extent to which he has won over many in the sector since his appointment. Regeneration expert Jackie Sadek is a supporter, describing him as "absolutely on top of his brief" and saying it’s vital he is kept in the job.
But this is not a foregone conclusion. With a wafer-thin majority of just 165, he has a fight to retain his Croydon Central seat, and the inevitable post-election ministerial reshuffle. His tenure so far has been a very busy one — marking a definitive change of course from David Cameron-era housing policies and culminating in the publication of a housing white paper full of proposed planning policy changes. Charm aside, how do we judge his track record, and what will be the impact if he’s not returned to the role after 8 June?
A self-confessed professional politician who was parliamentary private secretary to Greg Clark when he was planning minister, Barwell can point to an impressive list of significant policy innovations from his first nine months. As well as high-level direction changes, such as the watering down of the previous administration’s commitment to discounted Starter Homes for first-time buyers, there has been a raft of technical planning changes. Alex Morton, Cameron’s former planning advisor, now a partner at Field Consulting, says: "Barwell has rightly focused on the fundamental changes that can be done with serious planning reform."
Proposed changes include allowing local authorities to charge higher application fees, instituting a housing delivery test against which councils will be judged, a new planning framework for build to rent schemes, and encouraging quicker build-out rates from developers. He has also changed policy with a Written Ministerial Statement (WMS) that added weight to neighbourhood plans in areas where local plans lacked the required five-year housing land supply.
The positive reception Barwell receives, commentators say, is partly due to the fact he has acted cautiously, listened to advice and not been required to deliver big-ticket policies devised by Number 10 in the face of sector opposition, such as the Starter Homes commitment. "He’s a thinking man’s planning minister," says Liz Peace, former chief executive of the British Property Federation and chair of the government-commissioned review of the Community Infrastructure Levy, citing the change of heart on Starter Homes. "He is interested in what will work, and comes to a conclusion – rather than pressing ahead regardless of what people tell him."
While the thrust of the proposed changes have been to boost housing supply, the government’s planning decisions and other direct interventions made under Barwell and his boss, communities secretary Sajid Javid, have somewhat cut against this. A series of appeal decisions, such as in Castle Point in Essex last month, alongside the holding directions on the Bradford local plan and the December WMS, have appeared to give both green belt and neighbourhood plans higher priority than housing need. Industry sources also suggest Barwell has not been a proponent of relaxing green belt protections, while the white paper’s lack of radical interventions led to a lukewarm response. Hackett says: "He’s talked a good talk on housing supply, but the reality is there’s been no sea change. His brief has been not to rock the boat while Brexit is going on." Peace adds: "He’s done pretty well, but hasn’t tackled anything unpalatable or unaffordable."
Even close observers of the political scene say it is it is hard to tell which policies have been promoted by Barwell as opposed to Javid. Andrew Whitaker, planning direc-tor at the Homes Builders Federation, says Barwell and Javid "appear to work more closely together on housing and planning than most ministers and secretary of states". "We view them as a pair," he adds. How-ever, Whitaker believes Barwell’s thinking around speeding up developer build-out rates may stem from experience of slow housing construction in his constituency.
The fact Barwell is not significantly linked with particular policies, beyond the WMS, means experts say it is unclear what parts of the current policy framework will be vulnerable if he leaves. Javid is already being talked of in the press as a potential victim of a post-election reshuffle, which would break up the team behind the white paper, even if Barwell kept his job. Morton says the Conservative Party view is that Barwell is "doing well" in the job. "The worry is that he’s so successful he gets promoted somewhere else," he says.
In terms of his future plans, Barwell has said that allowing councils to raise application fees is a "top priority". He also intends to see through long-promised revisions to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). In April, Barwell told the Communities and Local Government Select Committee that, once this is done, the government wanted "to hold policy constant for a period of time and focus on place-based intervention". Mark Kerr, partner at public affairs group Newgate Communications, says: "If he gets back in, it’ll be very much business as usual – it’s delivery of the white paper, there’s lots in that."
If both he and Javid go, much could be up for grabs, despite manifesto pledges. Peace says: "He’s a rational fellow and would be missed." Morton puts it more starkly: "Given how long it takes a minister to get up to speed with a brief, the danger of a serious policy error with a novice would rise sharply." Which is not what anyone wants.
Who are the other parties’ planning spokespeople?
Labour – Roberta Blackman Woods
Durham MP Roberta Blackman-Woods was appointed shadow planning minister October 2011 and became shadow housing minister in May 2015, which includes the planning brief. Blackman-Woods recently supported greater weight for neighbourhood planning and and called for more transparency about the calculation of developer viability assessments. In the past, she has opposed the growth of change of use permitted development rights and called for more pressure on developers to deliver new homes.
Lib Dems – Baron Shipley
Baron Shipley is the Liberal Democrats’ shadow minister for housing, a post that also covers the planning brief. Leader of Newcastle Council until 2010, and currently a vice president of the Local Government Association, Baron Shipley led the Lib Dems’ contribution to the recent Neighbourhood Planning Bill in the House of Lords. He used the debates to push for a stronger role for neighbourhood planning bodies, and the expansion of neighbourhood planning to urban areas.
UKIP – Ray Finch
MEP Ray Finch was appointed housing and planning spokesperson by new party leader Paul Nuttall in December 2016. Since then, Finch has called for an increase in "municipal building primarily on brownfield land" and described the government’s garden village policy as "nothing more than an insufficient sticking plaster for the housing crisis in the UK".
SNP – Kevin Stewart
MSP Kevin Stewart was appointed local government and housing minister in May last year, a post which covers the planning brief. Stewart oversaw the publication of the Scottish government’s package of proposed planning changes in January, which included scrapping city region strategic development plans, raising planning fees and expanding permitted development.
Plaid Cymru - Sian Gwenllian
Welsh National Assembly member Sian Gwenllian is the spokesperson for local government, the Welsh language, equalities and planning. Gwenllian has campaigned for the undergrounding of power lines in the Snowdonia National Park.
Green Party - Amir Jeraj and Caroline Lucas
The Green Party does not have an identified lead on planning issues, though Amir Jeraj, a freelance journalist on housing issues, is housing spokesperson. Co-leader Caroline Lucas has also been involved in formulating policy in this area. In the 2015 election, the party campaigned on a platform of reforming the NPPF to prioritise protecting habitats, using planning to reduce wealth inequality and introducing third party rights.