I did not anticipate seeing Michael Gove placed at the helm of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Let the civil servants shudder.
What looks like a demotion may be a move of strategic genius, but the thing about Michael Gove, and about Boris, is you can never tell what they are thinking. What is going to happen next is wreathed in fog. I think that is encouraging, but you can’t tell.
The first thing I want to know is: will he replace the rusted, outdated, fall-apart Act which still tries to govern local government?
The second is: will he recognise that in terms of community, councils and their funny little ways are basically irrelevant to everyday life until we put the bins out, and that we live in places, in real counties, not in Whitehall-invented bureaucracies?
He has been a well known public figure since long before he was hurled openly into politics in David Cameron’s time. Michael Gove was a famed journalist, senior beyond his years, serving as news editor and assistant editor of The Times, seemingly rising effortlessly as his talent took him. Parliament was almost a retirement job, but for his boundless energy.
In recently years there has been an eminence grise air to what he has been doing in the Cabinet Office, but perhaps we will never find out what it has been.
What do we know? It is said that Gove wants to change the unwieldy name of his Department: that should be no surprise, as it was the first thing he did when he took on Education. The new name may be a clue to his priorities, or not.
The Department for Education (as he renamed it) was shaken to its boots. Free schools were driven through despite fierce reaction from traditional mandarins and the system revolutionised: no one else could have achieved that, and I can say this with certainty because no one else had ever successfully challenged ‘The Blob’. He even distributed King James Bibles (which sit unopened, alas, in display cases).
Faced now with another thankless department, what will he do?
The Local Government Act 1972 should have been dumped and burned decades ago. It has hitherto escaped repeal apparently simply because the mess is too frightening: it has even outlasted the European Communities Act 1972 (which our Mr Gove had a hand in scrapping) – let us just hope scrapping it does not cause as much fuss as the latter. To look at any reform to allow local authorities to reshape themselves, to empower communities, to allow reform, that Act needs to go
A replacement can be clean and straight-forward, not a poor 1970s tribute act; one that says what it means, not what Ted Heath guessed at fifty years ago.
Legal structure apart, thigs are hovering on one foot with many of the district councils, unstable and uncertain and threatened with predatory unlocal councils. Eric Pickles used to threaten merciless retribution against anyone who suggested local government reorganisation: it s unlikely to be Michael Gove who reverses that position because he knows it would not be sensible, and that it would be is unaffordable, with the Treasury running on fumes as it is. He might though have a trick up his sleeve for prompting smaller councils to co-operate more, to privatise more to save themselves, and to leave more to the community.
Community is indeed the key, as individual volunteers do far more good in their towns and villages than bureaucrats do. It’s just that bureaucrats have big budgets, purloined from their residents’ pockets. It feeds in too to that other role: levelling-up. It may be a mystery as to what ‘levelling-up’ is beyond the sound-bite, but there are wheels which can turn, and if it is incompetent politics which damns certain towns to poverty, then community and commerce must break through and lift them. That may need the sidelining of councils just as they are craving more devolved powers, but if they learn not to be jealous, not to be in control of everything, not to command the news cycle, then flowers may bloom.
- Michael Gove: A Man in a Hurry by Owen Bennett
- By Michael Gove:
- The Borisaurus: The Dictionary of Boris Johnson by Simon Walters
- The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity by Douglas Murray
- Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles MacKay (1841)
- 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, by Jordan B Peterson
- Woke: A Guide to Social Justice by Titania McGrath
- By Boris Johnson: