As the Government-in-Waiting, what would the Labour Party to do change planning and development?
The high priority given to housebuilding at the Labour Party Conference set the issue very firmly at the top of the political agenda. It’s a guarantee that our sector’s work will come into sharp focus as we approach the next general election.
The speeches of Keir Starmer, Angela Rayner and Rachel Reeves covered key topics including strategic planning, local engagement and housing supply; the provision of affordable housing, specifically through New Towns; the Green Belt (and newly branded ‘grey belt’); devolution, and the important issue of resourcing local authority planning teams.
We all acknowledge that the system needs to change, but what might change in the first few years of a Labour government, and how might the changes outlined at Labour’s conference impact on the sector?
Rachel Reeves’ pledge that, ‘We will strengthen the rules to prevent developers from wriggling out of their responsibilities and we will speed up the building of new social and affordable housing,’ made for uncomfortable reading, especially for those of us who routinely deliver 30% plus social / affordable housing in the interests of creating balanced communities and addressing local need.
We are painfully aware of the need for more homes, including market and social housing, to be available at a price which is affordable. Where I am based in the South East, the issue is reaching crisis point. The price of a home, whether to buy or to rent, is inaccessible to many, including essential key workers such as nurses and teachers. This then has consequences for delivering public services which affects us all.
Labour has promised to go ‘net positive on social housing numbers’ by delivering 150,000 social / affordable homes each year. This is in stark contrast to the current Government’s record: the past 12 years, according to Inside Housing, has seen 162,000 social rent homes delivered, but 332,000 were sold off or demolished – representing a net loss of over 14,000 a year.
Keir Starmer pledges to deliver a total of 1.5 million homes (social housing and market housing) over the next parliament but this can only be achieved if appropriate land is available, developers are able to secure planning permission expediently and for viable schemes, and resources (labour and materials) are available to deliver the homes. Notably, Keir Starmer’s pledge only matches that of Rishi Sunak’s government which has a housing target of 300,000 homes per year. The difference between the two however might be in their record of delivering homes and meeting this target.
Labour has promised to ‘repurpose the Affordable Homes Programme to direct it overwhelmingly toward the provision of social rented homes’ by scrapping the controversial Infrastructure Levy, reducing the number of social homes sold off each year under Right to Buy and, perhaps most controversially, giving local authorities enhanced compulsory powers to enable them to deliver affordable housing.
The Labour party accepts that, especially to accommodate affordable housing (because it generally brings about a lower return on investment than market housing) additional land must be acquired, and cheaply.
Labour plans to allow local authorities to buy land through compulsory purchase without needing to factor in the price premium demanded by developers and landowners hoping to secure planning permission – essentially to scrap ‘hope value’ within the compulsory purchase order (CPO) process. This policy was not enthusiastically received by the development industry, partly because of the protracted legal challenges that it would incur, which would be costly, time consuming, and resource-intensive for local planning authorities. Unfortunately, this policy doesn’t have the potential to deliver the homes as quickly or as cheaply as the headlines suggest.
And the issue goes beyond planning and land acquisition. Affordable / social housing is currently a fiscal consideration: it can’t be created if funding is nothing more than a tax on development – increasingly so as spiralling build costs and requirements such as biodiversity net gain push viability to its limits. Affordable housing, and in particular social rented housing, is often the first to go when viability assessments are undertaken. This is because the Community Infrastructure Levy is a priority for those councils in which it has been adopted and is non-negotiable; while development mitigation is a statutory requirement, which leaves little room to divert funding into social housing.
It is encouraging that Matthew Pennycook, Shadow Minister for Housing and Planning announced to a fringe meeting, ‘We are going to have to release parts of the Green Belt. We may add to the Green Belt, or enhance parts of the Green Belt, but we have to look at releasing parts of it.’
The Green Belt is now over 70-year old and covers 13% of the UK, surrounding 14 of the country’s 20 largest towns and cities, mostly, but not exclusively, in the south.
Since the Green Belt was introduced in the 1950s, the UK population has grown from around 51 million to over 68 million. Housing need, and especially the requirement for affordable housing, has never been more acute and many local authorities are unable to meet their housing need without strategically reviewing, and ultimately accepting, some development within the Green Belt.
Few would argue for the Green Belt to be abolished, but its value would be increased if its strictures were softened somewhat. The broad-brush approach which succeeded in preventing post-war urban sprawl has led to some land which could benefit from redevelopment being over-protected: contrary to a widely-held belief that the Green Belt is a bucolic ring of verdant countryside open to all, much of it is inaccessible and/or preserves and protects unattractive edge-of-settlement brownfield sites – those which have potential for sustainable development. Currently the development plan process which allows for land to be removed from the Green Belt for residential development in exceptional circumstances is time-consuming and comes with considerable risk. Were Green Belt legislation to allow for local flexibility, it could result in such sites coming forward for development as attractive communities and with accessible natural amenities.
This is where the repurposing of the ‘Grey Belt’ becomes imperative to future development. Back in May, Keir Starmer used a disused petrol station as an example of land within the Green Belt which had little aesthetic value but considerable development value. The petrol station – along with ‘disused car parks’ and ‘dreary wastelands’ – has since been branded the ‘Grey Belt’, representing that currently protected land which many would agree should be made available for development if it is suitably and sustainably located.
It is refreshing to hear politicians challenging strongly-held views about the Green Belt and announcing war on NIMBYism. Specifically, Keir Starmer has positioned himself as diametrically opposed to the backbench Tory MPs who caused consternation last December in branding himself a YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard). This is a controversial label to take on and if Labour wins the general election by gaining seats in traditionally Tory strongholds, it will be interesting to see to what extent he can remain so staunchly pro-development in such areas.
Many of the sweeping statements made in the conference hall will require close consideration, either to determine whether they are realistic, or alternatively whether they will result in any real change.
One such example is the commitment that building on brownfield land would have a ‘stronger presumption in favour of permission’. Brownfield development currently has a stronger presumption in favour of development than greenfield land. Whether planning policy can result in more brownfield development, especially for affordable housing, will, as it does now, depend on viability: if the costs of remediation, mitigation, access and numerous other constraints stack up to such an extent that the provision of affordable housing, for example, is impossible, its benefit must be questioned.
Georgian-inspired New Towns
It is widely acknowledged that to meet annual housing targets of 300,000, the creation of more New Towns is imperative: that figure has not been exceeded since the extensive New Towns programme of the 1970s.
Labour offers a variation on the typical New Town. It has been announced that the New Towns of the 2020s and 2030s would, unlike the previous generation of New Towns which was primarily modernist, take inspiration from five-storey Georgian-style townhouses.
In addition to meeting the need (and current Government objective) of ‘gentle density’, Victorian and Georgian-style development could significantly help in gaining support for new development. A recent study used extensive polling to demonstrate that in the design of new homes, traditional building design was much preferred to contemporary architecture. Across all demographics, a large majority agreed that newly built properties should fit in with their surroundings. This was used to substantiate the claim that NIMBYism can be overcome if better design reflects people’s desire leaning towards (traditional) building design.
This was an eye-opening revelation for the architecture profession. Nevertheless it was widely recognised as having the potential to change the perception of newbuilds across the country and thereby resolve the housing crisis.
Whilst the principle of traditional building styles may be preferred, unlike the Victorians and Georgians, housebuilders today need to accommodate new needs, including the requirement for cars to be parked with natural surveillance while not dominating the streetscene.
The role of development corporations
The New Towns of the 50s, 60s and 70s were made possible thanks to publicly funded development corporations and the same legislation has enabled more recent successes such as at Ebbsfleet. Projects such as this, when it comes to the delivery phase in particular, benefit from being well co-ordinated around infrastructure delivery, target-focused with both plan-making and development management powers to expediate decision making. They demonstrate that large-scale development, driven from the centre, enshrined in regional policy and implemented over a period much longer than a single parliamentary term, can be successful.
For such large schemes, even with the benefit of a development corporation, land assembly can be complex. The current compulsory purchase regime is slow-moving, complex, and resource-hungry and extensive reforms will therefore be needed to expedite New Town delivery.
Public funding and political will is also necessary to deliver the requisite amount of homes, and thus the requisite proportion of social housing: not simply shared ownership and discount market schemes, but socially rented homes that local authorities, with rapidly expanding housing lists, are crying out for. There are many areas that would benefit substantially from the benefits that development corporations can bring.
Labour has set out an ambitious programme of planning reforms – some potential quick fixes; others more long term. Keir Starmer sees this as a way to differentiate himself from his anti-development competition, enticing voters who are currently priced out of the housing market or struggle to take a step up the housing ladder. But the pledges need to be backed up with realistic plans.
If Keir Starmer is successful in winning the next general election, he will have to start making changes from day one. A parliamentary term of five years is a short period of time when it comes reforming the planning system, speeding up the preparation of Local Plans, reviewing the Green Belt, creating New Towns and more than doubling housing output.
We should not forget that the current Government had ambitious plans once – the Planning White Paper Planning for the Future, even the Levelling Up White Paper, were bold initiatives announced in the early stages of the current Parliament which have so far come to very little. But there is considerable potential in many of Labour’s proposals, and we certainly have an interesting year ahead.