What the new housing ministerial team has in store for planning

The arrival of a new housing secretary and housing minister may herald support for new settlements, development corporations and land value capture mechanisms, observers suggest, while their early statements indicate a focus on home ownership and continued green belt protection.

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick (pic: Getty)
Housing secretary Robert Jenrick (pic: Getty)

The appointment by new Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Robert Jenrick as housing secretary and Esther McVey as his housing minister has brought a new team to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG). McVey is the ninth housing minister to hold the role since the 2010 general election and the fourth in the last two years. Meanwhile, Jenrick is the fourth housing secretary in four years.

Almost a week into their new jobs, both Jenrick and McVey have talked of the importance of boosting housing delivery but also of home ownership. Jenrick's first day in the job involved a visit to Kidbrooke Village in south-east London, followed by trips to Ebbsfleet Garden City in Kent and a regeneration project in Wolverhampton - all brownfield housing schemes. He told the Express & Star newspaper that unlocking brownfield sites was a "priority" and reiterated Johnson's campaign promise to "respect the greenbelt".

Meanwhile, McVey has described building more homes, particularly for first-time buyers and families, as her "key mission". She has also praised social housing and, on a visit to a Homes England scheme in Hampshire, the release of public land for new homes. Beyond her appointment as housing minister, McVey’s exact role, including her planning responsibilities, has yet to be confirmed by MHCLG at the time of publication. However, given that McVey's five predecessors as housing minister, stretching back to Brandon Lewis, all held the planning brief, it's likely she will take this on.

"Jenrick, at 37 is the first millennial in the cabinet and a relatively inexperienced young secretary of state," pointed out Andrew Howard, managing director at communications consultancy the Built Environment Communications Group. "He’s going to be under pressure to prove his effectiveness. This will mean that he will have even less patience than his predecessor James Brokenshire, with councils who are lagging behind with their local plan preparation or achieving their housebuilding targets."

Jenrick’s appointment came as a surprise to many commentators particularly as his previous post was as a junior exchequer minister in the Treasury. "This is a sizeable promotion for Jenrick," said David Scane, associate partner at Newgate Communications. McVey has more senior government experience having previously been in cabinet as work and pensions secretary. "She will attend cabinet meetings, but her new position is in effect a demotion," said Scane. "Ensuring an effective working relationship between the two ministers will be important," he emphasised.

McVey’s first-hand experience of planning and housing is limited to being a director of her father’s Liverpool-based building company at one time,  according to Andrew Whitaker, planning director at the Home Builders Federation. "She is a strong advocate of promoting homeownership but with her  Tatton constituency in rural Cheshire,  she is committed to protecting the green belt," he said.

Jenrick’s Treasury experience will help in pushing through major housing schemes, according to Sarah Bevan, planning and development director at business body London First.  "At the Treasury, he had a close involvement with the government’s industrial strategy, regional devolution and city deals," she pointed out. "At MHCLG, he could be looking to negotiate more city deals to fund infrastructure and secure housing development," she said. "He is a strong supporter of High Speed Two and is committed to bringing forward major infrastructure projects as a way of regenerating areas," she said.   

Rebekah Paczek, managing director of public affairs consultancy Snapdragon at PLMR, said: "During a stint at the Treasury, Jenrick was vocally supportive of new models of infrastructure finance and delivery, particularly across the Cambridge-Oxford arc. He's seen as a competent reformist who will bring a pragmatic Treasury head to what's regarded as a domestic priority in need of a shake-up."

Bevan said Jenrick could be looking at such private sector funding mechanisms for infrastructure projects in his current role. She pointed to the MHCLG's ongoing review of how local authorities are using the community infrastructure levy and section 106 agreements as a potential opportunity to introduce new mechanisms for using  private funds for infrastructure projects. Last December, Jenrick wrote to property magazine Estates Gazette indicating his support for capturing uplifts in land value: "We have set out our clear expectation that authorities and delivery bodies across the arc should use existing and new mechanisms of land value capture, including the community infrastructure levy, to ensure that rising land values are captured and reinvested in the community." 

Jenrick’s main involvement in the built environment sector up to now has been with the government's Oxford-Cambridge "growth corridor" project. As treasury minister, he was a co-signatory, alongside former housing minister Kit Malthouse, of a joint declaration between central government and local partners around their joint ambitions to deliver 1 million homes in the area.  In his letter to Estates Gazette, he said the government "will work to ensure that appropriate vehicles are in place to achieve our ambitions for the arc". 

Martin Curtis, associate director at public affairs consultancy Curtin & Co, said: "Jenrick is likely to look to take greater central control of how housing is delivered not only in the arc, but probably more widely. He will probably support the current generation of garden towns and villages, but we could see more new town or urban development corporations." 

"The new secretary of state is very supportive of the new towns and garden villages agenda and sees more of these coming forward as critical to housing delivery with development corporations potentially playing a more substantial role," said Paczek. She added that he is also "keen on fast-tracking the disposal of public sector land", which may prompt further proposals on this issue.

Both Brokenshire and former housing minister Kit Malthouse emphasised the importance of improving the design quality of new housing. Commentators expect this focus, including the ongoing Building Beautiful Commission, to continue. Planning Officers Society chair Mike Kiely pointed out that Jenrick had an interest in design having been director of the art business Christie’s before going into politics.  "Brokenshire set up a review into the office to housing prior development rights  because of the poor design quality of some of the schemes coming forward," he said. "Hopefully, Jenrick will continue with the review and introduce some design controls into the permitted development right process."

One thing we can expect is that there will be no let-up in changes to the planning system. In his first major speech in Manchester last weekend, Johnson promised to "review" planning regulations to tackle the country's housing crisis. Like their predecessors, Jenrick and McVey will no doubt be kept very busy with this while they remain in their new roles. 

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