What the new housing secretary could have in store for planning

The appointment of a close Theresa May ally at the helm of the housing ministry signals broad continuity when it comes to planning, commentators say.

Housing secretary James Brokenshire
Housing secretary James Brokenshire

It’s fair to say that the new housing secretary James Brokenshire has hit the ground running. Within hours of his appointment on Monday morning, he was answering questions in the House of Commons about affordable housing. He told MPs that the "essential issue of housing" will be "a core priority for me in the time ahead". He also said he would listen "carefully" to concerns about affordable housing provision in new developments when looking at forthcoming revisions to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

Brokenshire’s surprise appointment came after his predecessor, Sajid Javid, became the new home secretary. Following the move, Brokenshire, MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup in suburban south-east London, said he is "determined to get Britain building the homes our country needs so everyone can afford a place to call their own". He listed supporting those affected by the Grenfell Tower fire as a top priority and said that, because his father was a former council chief executive, "local government is in the blood for me".

A former secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Brokenshire first held ministerial positions at the Home Office. Before entering politics, he worked as a commercial lawyer. However, experts have struggled to find much that Brokenshire has said about planning or housing since he became an MP in 2005. Ian Anderson, chief executive of planning consultancy Iceni Projects, described him as an "unknown quantity" when it comes to planning. But Ghislaine Trehearne, external affairs director at the British Property Federation, sees this as a positive: "It means he starts with a clean slate rather than with any industry preconceptions."

Many commentators refer to Brokenshire as "a safe pair of hands", someone who is not ideological and has been appointed to support the Prime Minister’s authority. David Scane, associate director at political engagement firm Curtin&Co, said: "His appointment has nothing to do with his views on planning and everything to do with shoring up Theresa May’s supporters in the Cabinet." Douglas Johnson, account director at communication consultancy Newgate Communications, said: "She trusts him to do things sensitively and in the same way as her. He’s seen as a quiet performer."

The change at the top of the ministry so soon after the government rebranded the department to focus more on housing has prompted some disquiet in the sector about the government’s priorities. But while Brokenshire is different in style to his predecessor, described as quieter and less outspoken, continuity is expected in policy terms. "In policy, we won’t see too much difference," said Johnson, adding that the key figures surrounding Brokenshire remain the same – Dominic Raab as housing minister, the Prime Minister and Gavin Barwell, the former housing minister, as her chief of staff. "He is not an ideologue and is unlikely to come to MHCLG with a strong agenda," said Scane. "I can’t imagine a radical change of direction compared to Javid. There’s been so much upheaval recently that I expect there is pressure from the department not to change tack. The secretary of state and housing minister are now both relatively inexperienced regarding planning."

While May and Javid are said to have occasionally clashed on planning reform, with him apparently supporting more radical measures, experts expect much closer alignment between the Prime Minister and Brokenshire on issues including green belt conservation. Brokenshire’s constituency contains a large amount of green belt, commentators point out. Potentially, there could also be "renewed emphasis on home ownership", said Johnson.

Matt Thomson, head of planning at the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), suspects that Brokenshire, like May and unlike Javid, may be less sympathetic to developers. Instead, he is likely to be "more positive" about the role of communities and councils in planning and development. Thomson said the CPRE hopes Brokenshire tones down some of the more pro-development and centralising measures in the draft NPPF, such as the housing delivery tests. "Perhaps we can expect a more community-responsive line than we’ve been having," he added. Brokenshire’s legal background may also be useful when it comes to getting to grips with detailed policies, Thomson said.

Brokenshire will certainly have his hands full when it comes to planning. As well as the final version of the revised NPPF, due out in the summer, the new housing secretary’s key tasks include the programme of threatened local plan intervention that was launched by Javid last autumn and could involve the secretary of state taking over plan production at three councils.


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