A year in planning and local government

No one can say that it hasn’t been a turbulent year in the world of planning and local Government. The local and mayoral elections in May 2021 saw the Conservatives claim a further 235 Councillors and 13 Councils from across the Country. Labour made gains in City Regions and Mayoralties, but it was a clear victory for the Tories. Cut to a month later, the Tories lost the parliamentary seat of Chesham and Amersham in Buckinghamshire through a by-election. The seat had been Conservative since its inception in 1974 and the loss of this seat to the Lib Dems signalled disquiet amongst Conservative voters in the Home Counties and wider Southeast. The loss of Chesham and Amersham suggested that Tory voters in these areas were not happy with the proposed planning reforms, especially in relation to Greenbelt land in their area.

In August last year, the then Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick, announced a series of long-awaited reforms to the UK’s planning system in the Planning for the Future White Paper. The ‘big ticket items’ on his list of reforms included land to be designated as either protected, renewal, or growth, with land allocated for growth being granted automatic planning permissions (as long as it meets certain standards), replacement of S106 agreements with a national infrastructure levy, and the speeding up of the Local Plan process. Ultimately, Jenrick’s planning reforms were designed to speed up the planning process in general and make it seamless.

Jenrick’s reforms garnered a lot of criticism from both within the industry and among politicians. Many within the industry believed that the proposals lacked detail on specific issues faced within the planning system and that the proposals needed to be opened to debate. Many backbench Tory MPs took this opposition a step further, especially those who represent constituencies that are home to significant numbers of Greenbelt and greenfield sites. Many Tory MPs believed that the planning reforms were responsible for the loss of the Chesham and Amersham by-election to the Lib Dems.

In Autumn 2021, media outlets were reporting that Robert Jenrick was about to announce a watered-down version of the planning reforms, in response to back bench rebellion from Conservative MPs. However, he did not get the chance to do so.

In September this year Boris Johnson reshuffled his Cabinet and, in doing so, removed Robert Jenrick as Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government and replaced him with Michael Gove, albeit with a revised title of Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. This is an interesting switch, as Michael Gove is known as a ‘fixer’ in the Cabinet, which suggests that Boris believed that MHCLG was underperforming. Similarly, Michael Gove represents one of the constituencies in the South of England which has a significant amount of Greenbelt, so he will be more trusted with these issues by Conservative backbench MPs.

So, what does this mean for planning reforms going forward into 2022? It is clear that we will get a watered-down version of the planning reforms when the response to the consultation on these is released next year, alongside the Levelling Up White Paper. When we spoke to Council Leaders and Cabinet members as part of our In Conversation With… event series, one member predicted that the Government would scrap the 30,000 new homes per year target and replace it with a higher figure across a longer period of time, such as the length of a Parliament. This would give the Government flexibility over their housing numbers. So, given time we can see if this prediction is true.

Politically, heading in to 2022, Boris Johnson is on rocky ground. With the recent loss of the North Shropshire by-election to the Lib Dems, the criticisms levelled at the Tories over their Christmas

parties last year, and the resignation of Lord Frost, the blows keep coming for Boris Johnson. It will be interesting to see what impact this has on the local elections in 2022.

Looking forward at this early stage, it looks likely that in London, Labour could make even more gains in boroughs where they already have a strong presence. In London’s few Conservative boroughs, the Tories may lose a few seats, but who these swing towards is anyone’s guess at this point in time.

There will be a few boroughs to watch, however. The Lib Dems in Kingston have made some unpopular decisions that may result in them losing some seats. Whether this will be enough to turn the Council blue again remains to be seen. In Wandsworth, the Labour party were gearing up to put up a fight against the Tories, but they have been distracted by an internal leadership battle. Finally, in Croydon, the Labour leadership have been tarnished by the money problems that the Council has faced. Again, whether this will result in the Conservatives gaining a majority remains to be seen.

In the wider Southeast, we may see the Conservatives losing more seats in traditional Tory heartlands if the Chesham and Amersham and North Shropshire by-elections are anything to go by. Who knows, we may even see the resurgence of the Lib Dems in 2022. It is certainly gearing up to be an interesting year in politics and an interesting election season in 2022!

Snapdragon at PLMR will continue to monitor the politics of planning throughout 2022 – please contact natasha@snapdragonconsulting.co.uk if you or your colleagues would like to be added to our database.

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