In August 2020, the Government launched the Planning for the Future White Paper. Boris Johnson, who was Prime Minister at the time, said it promised:
“A whole new planning system for England. One that is simpler, clearer and quicker to navigate, delivering results in weeks and months rather than years and decades. That actively encourages sustainable, beautiful, safe and useful development rather than obstructing it.”
The White Paper promised to make development easier provided design codes with popular local approval were followed:
“We intend to introduce a fast-track for beauty through changes to national policy and legislation, to incentivise and accelerate high quality development which reflects local character and preferences.”
There would be planning zones with three categories. Robert Jenrick, then the Housing Secretary, wrote:
“Land designated for growth will empower development – new homes, hospitals, schools, shops and offices will be allowed automatically. People can get going.
“Renewal areas will enable much quicker development with a ‘permission in principle’ approach to balance speed while ensuring appropriate checks are carried out.
“And protected land will be just that – our Green Belt, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and rich heritage – will be protected as the places, views and landscapes we cherish most and passed on to the next generation as set out in our manifesto.”
Had that radicalism been pursued it could have significantly boosted the housing supply and thus made home ownership more affordable. But, of course, on April 21st 2021, came the date that will live in infamy, the Chesham and Amersham by-election.
The Conservative defeat scared the Government off liberalising the planning system. I’m not sure the voters were giving such a clear message. There were other factors – such as HS2. There is certainly pessimism, not unique to Chesham and Amersham, that new development means ugly development. There was also misrepresentation from the Liberal Democrats over what the Government proposed. It was a pity the Government didn’t press ahead and prove its critics wrong.
But where was the Labour Party? Mike Amesbury, the Shadow Housing and Planning Minister, said the Government’s proposed planning reforms were “a Developer’s Charter that will see communities side-lined in decisions.”
Steve Reed, then the Shadow Communities and Local Government Secretary, declared the Government would “reap a political whirlwind if they went ahead with their plans to silence communities and hand control over planning to developers.”
Here are some other comments from the same debate. Stephanie Peacock, another Labour MP backed him up saying:
“The planning system is already well rigged in developers’ favour.”
Helen Hayes, another Shadow Minister, repeated the Developers Charter charge and complained that the Government was “deregulating the planning system by expanding permitted development rights” and was “treating the planning system as inconvenient red tape to be swept away as much as possible.”
Catherine McKinnell, Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne North, joined in:
“I am regularly contacted by constituents who are deeply concerned about the scale and pace of housing development across Newcastle’s outer west.”
Andrew Slaughter, the Labour MP for Hammersmith, went so far as to say that the proposal to ease restrictions – “the free-for-all allowed by permitted development” – was “corrupt”. It was “cash for profits; donations for deregulation.” It amounted to…”a developers charter.”
Margaret Greenwood, another Shadow Minister, then gave her thoughts:
“The Government’s planning proposals are a developers’ charter…The Government intend that new-style local plans will divide land in England into three zones: growth, renewal and protected. While residents will be consulted on these zones during the development of a local plan, once the plan is completed, they will have very little say—and in the vast majority of cases, no say at all—on what gets built in growth and renewal areas.”
Ruth Cadbury, the then Shadow Planning Minister, brushed aside the idea that increasing supply was a means to reduce the price:
“Defenders of the Government’s plans have said time and again that these proposals are the solution to the housing crisis, as though delivering all these homes would magically bring all house prices down to a level affordable to all young people across England. They know that the solution is far more complex than that.”
The Labour Party got its way and the Government retreated. But not enough to satisfy the Opposition. In a debate last year Lisa Nandy, the Shadow Levelling Up Secretary, said:
“In all fairness to the Secretary of State, we were relieved to see the back of a planning framework that seemed to be based on a traffic light system. Our communities deserved far better than that. However, this Bill, as he has heard from colleagues on both sides of the House, allows neighbourhood plans to be overridden when they conflict with a national development management plan.”
(Space does not allow me to include comments from Labour MPs denouncing Conservative efforts to enhance the right to buy for those in social housing. But such quotes would not be hard to find.)
But what’s happened now? Labour’s complaint has suddenly changed now that the Government is anti-development. Shabana Mahmood MP, Labour’s National Campaign Coordinator, was interviewed by the BBC on Sunday by Laura Kuenssberg. Mahmood denounced the Government for allowing building to be blocked:
“We know people are desperate to get on the housing ladder and we’re simply not building enough homes in the country.”
One problem was that the requirement for a specific number of new homes for each local authority has been lifted. A Labour Government would restore “binding targets on local authorities in order to get houses built to meet local housing need.”
“We’ve got to stop having a system where, you know, effectively people can block housing in their area.”
Nandy promises “a target for 70 per cent home-ownership, giving young people and families the pride and security that comes with owning their own home. We will reform planning to get more homes built.” At the moment, 64 per cent of us are homeowners. Getting it up to 70 per cent over just a few years would mean a big increase in supply, to allow a sharp fall in prices. 300,000 new homes a year would not be anything near enough. That’s just my hypothesis. But it is for Nandy to produce the modelling, the detail, the targets, what planning reforms will be introduced. Otherwise people might suspect the 70 per cent figure was just plucked out of the air.
Then we had Sir Keir Starmer, interview for The Observer declare:
“The dream of home ownership has been killed by the prime minister because he has taken those targets away. I want Labour to be the party of home ownership.”
According to Patrick Maguire in The Times:
“Starmer’s government would also look anew at the green belt, swathes of which — including a petrol station in Tottenham Hale, north London — are neither green nor pleasant. Those sites would be liberated.”
Lifting the targets is a retrograde step. Of course, Conservatives do not like the idea of the state declaring 300,000 new homes are “needed” each year – still less specifying where they should be built. Why should state planners decide that any more than how many new mobile phones we need? Or toothbrushes? Or potatoes? This is not the Soviet Union with a five year plan of targets for pig-iron production.
The snag is that, rather than the Jenrick approach of allowing the market to operate instead of rationing, we are retaining the system of rationing, only with an even more miserable ration. The market will not decide – the state will restrict supply even more tightly.
The Home Builders Federation reports that 55 local authorities have “stalled, delayed or withdrawn” their local plans as they no longer are obliged to allow any development to proceed. Those councils include Slough, Wolverhampton, Sandwell, Gedling and Waltham Forest – all under Labour control. Also Gravesham – which has a minority Labour administration and Swale and North Somerset which have coalitions including Labour councillors.
Will Sir Keir disown those councils for “killing the dream of home ownership”? By forcing them to accept development will he find them accusing him of adopting a “developer’s charter”?
Labour’s embrace of home ownership is welcome – especially the acceptance of the key point that a big increase in supply is crucial to making wider home ownership a reality. But given the lack of detail provided and the anti development rhetoric prevalent in the Party so recently, the electorate is entitled to a degree of scepticism.