Michael Gove has told MPs he believes the government should create cabinet-level committees to deliver on the levelling up agenda that are modelled on those used to manage the UK’s departure from the European Union and preparing for net zero.
The new levelling up secretary made the observation in his first appearance before parliament’s Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee – which scrutinises the work of Gove’s freshly rebranded department.
Gove also told MPs he hoped the government’s levelling up white paper would be published before Christmas and suggested it would set out how the government could be judged on its efforts to improve so-called “left behind” parts of the country. A recurring criticism of the agenda has been a lack of focus and a sense that it is used as an umbrella term for sometimes contradictory policies.
Gove said it was right that his Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities – known as the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government until September – should lead on levelling up because of its focus on place.
He said its work should be seen as similar to the co-ordinating role played by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in relation to the government’s net-zero carbon emissions ambitions.
Committee chair Clive Betts asked Gove what mechanisms should be put in place to ensure that departments took a joined-up approach to levelling up. Gove said the government’s approach to delivering Brexit and net zero should be used as a template.
“It has to be done, I think, through a cabinet committee,” he said. “In a previous role I played a part in helping us to prepare for our departure from the European Union by chairing a cabinet committee – XO – which was focused on making sure that each of the government departments... the Department for Transport when it came to making sure that our ports were ready, HMRC in making sure that we were ready for life outside the customs union. That cabinet committee had convening power.
“Similarly, there is a strategy committee that looks towards net zero and an operations committee that looks at the move towards net zero, one chaired by the prime minister, one chaired by the BEIS secretary of state.
“My view is that the logic here is to have the prime minister chairing a strategy committee looking at levelling up strategy and then the operational outworkings of that being done in a committee that would be chaired by whoever had the job that I currently have.”
Gove, who was Cabinet Office minister until September’s reshuffle, admitted that dealing with the coronavirus pandemic had left less bandwidth for public conversations about the levelling up agenda. He said such conversations were a “necessary prelude” to establishing the sorts of metrics that would be required to assess success in levelling up.
“We hope to publish a white paper before Christmas and in it we anticipate setting out some particular measures by which the government can be judged and some metrics by which we and others can be held to account,” he said.
At the start of yesterday’s session, Betts asked Gove what levelling up meant.
"In a sentence, it's making opportunity more equal across the country,” Gove replied.
He went on to say that four critical elements for the agenda were: helping to strengthen and improve local leadership; improving living standards; improving the quality of public services; and helping to restore and enhance pride in place.
Department faces ‘very, very painful’ time at Grenfell Inquiry
MPs also spent a great deal of time questioning Gove about the 2017 Grenfell Tower tragedy and the regulatory and safety fallout from the fire, which claimed 72 lives.
The secretary of state said the upcoming phase of the Grenfell inquiry, probing government’s knowledge of safety concerns around high-rise buildings and regulation, would be “very, very painful” for DLUHC.
“The department itself – as the inquiry turns its attention to the department’s role – will be seen to have, on a couple of occasions, not necessarily appreciated the importance of fire safety and not necessarily done everything in the wake of the Lakanal House tragedy that it should have done,” Gove said.
The Lakanal House fire was a 2009 blaze in a Southwark block of flats in which six people died. It prompted a coroner to call on the government to urgently review safety measures for high-rise buildings.
Gove told yesterday’s committee session that he did not believe that shortcomings identified with England’s building-safety regime since the Grenfell Tower fire excused private-sector operators for their own failings.
“You can look back and see what was happening at the time and say OK, so the sheriff – or sheriffs – might not have been on the ball,” he said. “But the cowboys were behaving like cowboys in an unregulated way.”