Michael Gove interview: Scottish independence 'would be vandalism'

The Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities sat down with The Big Issue to talk about poverty, housing, Brexit, the union and the fact that he will not be making another bid for the Conservative leadership


Michael Gove has rarely been far from government front benches since 2010. A departmental fixer, he has frequently been ushered in to pick up the pieces left by predecessors. As justice secretary, following Chris Grayling’s clumsy and, in the end, loathed reign, Gove addressed issues of court fees and the contentious ‘books into prison’ policy. When he went into environment, Gove dealt with microbeads, animal welfare, single-use plastics and, unlike other senior Tories, he also made warm noises about Extinction Rebellion.

Less popular with rank-and-file teachers during his time at education, Gove’s role as an architect and advocate for Brexit has made him a divisive figure again.

Since last September he has taken charge of his biggest department to date. He is secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities. Oh, and he’s also minister for intergovernmental relations. And minister for the union. That’s a lot. Given the breadth of it all, can the fixer hope to fix much this time round? And with the clouds gathering around Boris Johnson, will Gove make it a hat-trick of leadership bids?

The Big Issue: Levelling up is a phrase bandied about frequently, but frequently in a vague way. Can you define it?

Michael Gove: The UK is geographically unequal. Wealth, power and the most productive companies are concentrated in London. We don’t want to undermine London’s successes as a global city, but there some big challenges. What we do need to recognise is that in the Midlands and in the north of England the number of productive firms, the number of high-wage jobs, the number of education opportunities, are not what they should be if we compare to countries of similar size. Levelling up is an effort to ensure that we are more geographically equal society and a more socially mobile one.

How long will it take? Your party has been in office a while. How long do those other regions have to wait, or is it just not going to get there? We set ourselves some specific targets of what we want to achieve by 2030. The thing about levelling up is it happens fast and slow. Some things will contribute to it – like infrastructure – that will take time. But other things we can do quickly, such as giving local communities some additional funding and additional powers to make a difference.

So, in our 400 page white paper, which has had slightly smaller circulation so far than The Big Issue, we make the case that levelling up isn’t delivered by just one particular lever. You could argue that education was perhaps the most important. It’s also the case that strengthening the powers of local leaders to make a difference, providing resources to the cultural opportunities that are latent in a community, that’s also part of it. Levelling up is bound to be a task that will require more than one Parliament and certainly more than one individual. I’d like to be in position to say we have given strong local leaders, both elected politicians and business people and cultural figures, the tools that they need to bring about that change.

More devolvement to local areas? Yes. And also to be fair to the other political parties, there is no party that is arguing that the principle of levelling up is misguided or wrong. The opposition will say we should be devoting more money to it, that’s entirely understandable, but I think that the debate that has been started in the course of the last few years about the need to level up is not going to go away. It is not a challenge that any government is going to duck.

One of your manifesto commitments was a target of building 300,000 new homes in England per year. This has not been met in the lifetime of this government. In 20/21 it was 216,000, almost a third fewer. You’ve recently been evasive about any number. What are you going to do to accelerate building to make sure essential housing stock increases? Before the pandemic we got to 244,000. I’d like to get back up to that. There are several constraints at the moment – because of the labour market, the cost of material – but putting that all to one side, you’re quite rightly asking what are we going to do it about. The first thing is to make sure we have a set of rules that make it easier for development to be welcomed. The second is to make sure we can play an active role as the government in bringing the land together to make sure you can have more development whether that is private sector-led or of social housing-led.

So you’re not going to pick a figure now? I wouldn’t because the target remains. How quickly we’re going to reach it, I couldn’t confidently say.

Doesn’t this make it difficult for people. When your government announces the plan for social housing to become owner-owned, a hugely complex expensive idea – that is one side. On the other is an inability to build as many homes as are needed, so even if you do sell some social homes, there will be a shortfall. And then we have people who just couldn’t afford to buy anyway and are priced out of renting too. You have a storm gathering. What is the plan? Through Homes England [there is] a plan to regenerate up to 20 urban centres. That regeneration will mean our cities, that are significantly less dense than continental comparators, can have a growth in the level of housing that they need in communities where that development can help to contribute to the economic regeneration of those areas. That is one lever.

In order to make that work we have money from Treasury and also compulsory purchase powers so that you can’t have landowners holding out for excessive valuation of that property. That’s two tools that help you assemble land required. The planning changes that we’re making in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill are also designed to make it easier for local authorities to adopt plans. Overall, the more local authorities that have sound plans, the more development you are likely to have.

It’s a massive canvas. We have plans for every bit of it. In order to take you or everybody through that would take months. So again, when it comes to replacement of social housing stock, the pilot we had in the West Midlands shows that over three years you can replace that stock.

Do you genuinely think there will be widescale purchase by occupiers of social housing in Britain? I think there will be a significant demand for that. It wouldn’t be on the scale, for obvious reasons, of council house sales in the 1980s. I wouldn’t put a number to it. I need to get a sense from housing associations of what their capacity is. It will require some additional cash.

You have had some success in helping address the cladding issues of people stuck in buildings requiring remedial work to make them safe, following the Grenfell tragedy, and making sure they are not left in deep debt for something that is not their fault. What more will you do? The developers are one significant link the chain of responsibility. But we need to make sure that the people who own the freeholds who haven’t come forward yet to say they’re going to pay for remediation, or haven’t come forward to ask the government to help, do so. We’ve hired a guy called Graham Cundy who used to be a commander in the Special Boat Service to lead a team along with lawyers, forensic accountants and others to make sure we find those responsible. We need to deal with the construction products people, again their culpability is clear, so we need to get resource for them. But we also need to make sure that as government we get money out the door more quickly. The money we’ve handed out to remediate buildings hasn’t been pushed out the door as quickly as it should have been.

Campaigners and those who lost loved ones in Grenfell want to pursue criminal charges for those responsible. Will you help them? Yes. There’s a debate that goes on about whether or not the rules were perfectly clear or insufficiently clear. I think they were insufficiently clear, but that doesn’t let people off the hook for doing terrible things. The decision about whether there should be criminal prosecution is for the CPS after the police have made a case. I can’t tell the police to prosecute that person, to go after them. But I will do everything to help the police and the CPS and the bereaved and the survivors to go after the people responsible. Because to my mind, and I hope I’m not prejudicing anything, there’s a clear case that people behaved in a way that was so incredibly reckless and selfish that they deserve to face criminal proceedings.

We’re receiving reports of Ukrainian refugees presenting as homeless. Will you provide extra assistance for local authorities to help them house Ukrainian refugees? Yes. At the moment there are more than 60,000 people who have come from Ukraine, that we’re aware of. There are some challenges for the family scheme. And there will be some people who’ll volunteer to be sponsors but it just won’t work. So we have a responsibility to talk to people who said they’d be sponsors but haven’t yet gone through the process.

There’s another thing as well. There are some people who have come to the UK, whether through Republic of Ireland or elsewhere, fleeing persecution but will present as homeless and we need to do everything we can to make sure accommodation is there for them.

How does this openness fit with Rwanda refugee flights? I understand that a number of people are opposed to the policy. My view is that countries are more generous to refugees if they know the government is exercising firm control. So that means if a government says to the people we are willing to accept an uncapped number of Ukrainian refugees. We’re willing to accept an uncapped number of people from Hong Kong. We have a scheme of accepting 20,000 people a year from Afghanistan. It’s also the case that we have hundreds of thousand of people coming from east Africa, Asia etc to help with some of our labour market problems. What we can’t have is people arriving here through illegal routes.

But how else will some people fleeing for their lives get in? Ultimately, you can only presume on the generosity of the British people if you also have as part of the deal a reassurance that there is control.

How would you feel, not as a seasoned politician but if it were your family who had to flee and when they finally get there by whatever means, to somewhere of safety, they’re being made scapegoats and put on a plane? I don’t think they’re being made scapegoats. But I do think when you’re thinking about generosity and support for people coming to this country you’ve got to maintain democratic support for that. That means feeling there is control. I think the majority of people would support the [Rwanda] flight. Attitudes towards migration now are more generous now than they were pre-2016, irrespective of what you think of Brexit. Since the Brexit vote people have been more supportive of economic migration and more supportive of refugees.

Is that because they see the impact of Brexit in local communities, in hospitals where there is a desperate need for nurses. Would you concede Brexit has made this worse? I don’t think so. I think Brexit has made it better. We’re in a position where we’re truly global.

Scotland is going for independence again. You are very pro-union. Do you think that it’ll be harder to make the argument to keep the union together? Is there an inevitable split coming? After more than 300 years, when there are all these institutions we built together, to dismantle them would be vandalism, but more to the point, the UK success story, if you look at the cabinet, it is incredibly diverse. If you look at Britain overall, it’s because it’s because it’s a multinational state, but it’s also a successful multicultural one we’ve learned the art of compromise over the years. Institutions that sum up the UK in people’s minds, whether it’s the symbol of service the monarchy embodies, or whether it’s the NHS and the idea of everyone sharing and pooling risk, they’re all British values.

They’re wider than British values. If Brexit has been a success, as you say, and that was about leaving union, won’t it be hard for you as the architect of that to argue with somebody else who wants to leave a union? I don’t think so. I’d argue the British union has been more successful than the European Union. I’d also say, the UK is one of those places where it’s possible to have plural identities – like Canada. That’s a good thing.

You’ve had two attempts at leadership. Will you make it a third? No

Never? If I was the only one left…

And the current leader, you’re happy with him? Very happy.

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big IssueRead his columns here. Follow him on Twitter

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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