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Michael Gove has warned that new environmental rules risked provoking a populist backlash and expressed his “worry” about the UK’s widening wealth inequalities.
Speaking at Saturday’s FT Weekend Festival, the UK levelling-up secretary said the growing strength of Germany’s far right exposed the danger of angering voters over environmental initiatives.
He also said that inequalities of wealth — ownership of assets — had widened more than inequalities of income in recent years and hinted he would favour a wealth tax.
Gove was responding to questions at a live recording of the FT’s Political Fix podcast and also participated in a discussion of London’s housing market problems. He accepted that his remarks went well beyond his responsibilities as the minister responsible for local government and housing.
On green issues, the former environment secretary told the event that the government’s 2030 pledge to ban new petrol and diesel cars would remain, but added it was vital to include some flexibility in policies.
“In Germany, one of the . . . political problems is that the speed with which the move towards changing domestic heating has gone has become a political flashpoint,” he said.
Discontent over that issue had contributed to the surge in support for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AFD) party, Gove said.
“I would not want to see a party like the AFD having 20 per cent or more of public support in the UK.”
The Conservatives’ debate over environmental issues has been galvanised by their narrow win in July’s Uxbridge by-election. The campaign was dominated by London Labour mayor Sadiq Khan’s policy of extending the capital’s Ultra-Low Emissions Zone for vehicles to its outer boroughs.
Gove called for green initiatives to be pursued, but with sensitivity.
“There’s a recognition, particularly at the moment, that if we’re going to take people with us on this journey, we need to make sure that we’re not creating a number of disproportionate penalties or punitive measures that lead people to suffer economically or feel that the sacrifice isn’t worth it,” he said.
His remarks on wealth issues came in response to a question about whether the government was doing enough for young people, which he said they were not.
“I do worry that in a number of areas that the structure of our society means that the concentrated influence of ‘those who have’ can sometimes act as a block on the aspirations and opportunities of ‘those who aspire’,” Gove said.
He suggested money would have to be raised from those acting in a “rentier fashion” — extracting income from assets, rather than working.
“One of the questions in my mind is how do we make sure that we reward opportunity, aspiration, work and creativity and then find a way of extracting what we need for public services from those who operate in a rentier fashion,” he said.
He added that it was necessary to think about how taxes were levied and revealed he had sent Chancellor Jeremy Hunt an email on the issue.
Gove also said it would not be “a sin against a free market” to consider “significant restrictions” on overseas property owners.
He referred to criticisms by two journalists on the panel, Oliver Bullough and Anna Minton, about London’s role as a haven for corrupt assets.
“I don’t agree with all of it but I think they’re basically right,” he said.
The capital’s property market had been an “easy way” to get “hot money” transferred into “something more substantial”, he added.
Gove pointed out that countries such as Canada had introduced restrictions on overseas investors’ rights to own property.
“It’s striking that other open trading economies have significant restrictions or significant tax penalties or tax takes on overseas property owners,” he said. “So I don’t think it’s a sin against a free market to consider.”