The UK General Election - 4th July 2024

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The 2023 Party Conference Season: Unveiling Visions for UK Planning

Anthony Cooper

Account Executive

After three weeks of party conferences, the Liberal Democrat, Conservative and Labour parties have all unveiled their vision of the future. Below is a summary of the key highlights from the conferences from a planning perspective.

Liberal Democrat Conference

At the Liberal Democrat Conference, leader Sir Ed Davey underscored the importance of environmental sustainability. He criticised the Conservative government’s environmental U-turns and highlighted the critical role renewable energy sources play, particularly offshore wind, in shaping the future of the economy and our approach in the fight against climate change.

However, planning and housing were notably absent from the conference discussions. Planning policies not only directly influence housing availability and affordability but also go hand in hand with climate issues, as they play a vital role in determining the energy efficiency of our towns and cities.

This year’s Autumn conference was approached with the intention of axing policies that may have initially deterred Conservative voters, such as the party’s commitment to EU membership, or their previous pledges to raise income tax. Therefore, Davey’s focus was around downplaying their initial housing policy pledges. Nevertheless, the Liberal Democrats have rejected the leadership’s plan to scrap its national house-building target, which was backed by members after a vote on 25 September in favour of retaining their initial housing pledges, and the party has therefore maintained its commitment to building 380,000 houses.

With a general election scheduled for next year comes the potential of another hung parliament. Labour intends to significantly liberalise planning as part of its growth strategy, and the outcome of the conference vote makes it less likely that the Liberal Democrats will oppose such plans in a coalition negotiation.

Conservative Party Conference

The Conservative Party Conference, on the other hand, saw Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s somewhat daring announcement to scrap the northern leg of the high-speed rail line, HS2. This controversial decision met with mixed reactions and sparked debates about the government’s commitment to its promises in the North and the Midlands.

Having stated that the “facts have changed” with significant costs and delays, the Prime Minister said the government “will reinvest every single penny” saved from cancelling the remainder of HS2, which he said amounts to £36bn. The initial project was intended to link London, the Midlands and the North of England. However, in his speech, the Prime Minister said that East-West links were “far more important” than those linking up the North and the South of England.

To fill the void, the Prime Minister has said the remaining £36bn earmarked for HS2 will instead be reinvested in “hundreds of new transport projects in the North and the Midlands, across the country.”

The Prime Minister said he would “protect the £12 billion to link up Manchester and Liverpool as planned,” and also pledged to build a new “Midlands rail hub” to connect 50 different stations. He said he would extend the West Midlands Metro, build a tram system in Leeds, and electrify the North Wales mainline, as well as upgrading a series of major roads.

Sunak also pledged to create a new “Euston Development Zone”, which would replace the current building site for an HS2 terminal at London’s Euston station with thousands of new homes.

In his speech, the Prime Minister directly addressed West Midlands Tory mayor Andy Street, saying that while they had their differences on HS2, they “can work together” to ensure quicker trains and more capacity between Birmingham and Manchester.

Rishi Sunak’s announcement to scrap the northern extension of the HS2 railway project has elicited a mixed response from the public and political analysts. While the decision has garnered support among some northern Conservative politicians, there may be a potential loss of trust among historically conservative-leaning northerners, who, having believed their concerns would be addressed, have instead been met with unfulfilled promises. The HS2 project would have brought with it a significant beacon of hope, with the potential of bolstering business and investment in the regional areas of the Midlands and North.

On Monday, Andy Street had said axing the Manchester line would amount to “cancelling the future”.

The decision to scrap the HS2 project was a daring move which may now contribute towards the prevailing narrative of unfulfilled promises and distrust in the Conservative government’s ability to deliver on its commitments.

Labour Party Conference

The Labour Party conference showcased an ambitious agenda of planning rules and bolstering affordable housing availability.

Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves has pledged to fast-track planning applications for major infrastructure projects including battery factories, life sciences, and 5G infrastructure. The party intends to hire 300 new planners across the public sector and rewrite planning guidance to expedite the process.

Labour has also committed to delivering the most substantial increase in affordable housing “in a generation”, with Shadow Deputy Leader Angela Rayner vowing to “get tough” with developers who try to “wriggle out” of their social obligations. The party stated that it would do this by introducing an expert unit (Take Back Control Unit) to give councils and housing associations advice on negotiating with property firms. She also said that Labour would “provide stability and certainty for the affordable and social housing market so there is confidence to invest”.

The Shadow Deputy Leader also pledged that the party would free up funds for councils and housing associations to build more homes for rent, and would ‘deliver the biggest boost in affordable and social housing for a generation, including council housing.’

In reference to the party’s stance on building on Green Belt land, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has said the UK must “get real about where we’re going to build” in an effort to help ameliorate the housing crisis. This followed comments by Rachel Reeves that Labour would speed up planning by reviewing rules about construction on Green Belt land.

Starmer also announced Labour’s plans to ‘get Britain building again’. This includes plans to release areas of ‘low-quality’ land such as scrubland, car parks or deserted shopping centres from the Green Belt. These so-called ‘grey belt’ areas will become brownfield areas, defined as land that has already been built on, and developed into affordable housing.

Homebuilding was perhaps Sir Keir’s most noteworthy announcement, with his pledge for 1.5 million homes and ‘Labour new towns’, vowing to “bulldoze” through planning law to allow the “security of home ownership”. The pledge is reminiscent of that of Labour’s 1946 New Towns Acts under Clement Atlee’s Labour government, which laid out the construction and expansion of towns post World War Two.

Now the parties have unveiled their priorities, it will be down to the country to decide the future trajectory of the nation in the years to come.

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