The Royal Town Planning Institute’s Chief Executive, Presidential and Public Affairs teams spent much of last month touring the country and the political landscape at the Liberal Democrat, Conservative and Labour conferences.
The RTPI’s Senior Public Affairs Officer, Joel Cohen, has begun to sketch the emerging political battlelines on planning and assess the parties' political platforms against the yardstick of our recently published Planifesto.
In Manchester, we saw a party in a hurry to “take on the ‘declinists’ and watch the British economy prove the doubters wrong” as the Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt MP, put it in his speech.
The RTPI’s Planifesto ambition, to deliver safe, sufficient and sustainable housing has become a litmus test for Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Party. Though it may have been just a footnote to the Housing Secretary and Prime Minister’s speeches, in the corridors and fringes few conversations passed without mention of planning reforms and the ticking election clock.
It’s no surprise then that urgency was a major feature of Housing Minister Rachel Maclean’s appearances. Her immediate missions: to reinforce that housing targets still hold, as do local plan-making expectations; to reaffirm Government’s commitment to its planning reforms, finishing the LURB and updating the NPPF; and to make promises that further “measures to boost the supply side of housing” and a new Nutrients Reform Bill to resolve water neutrality issues will come forward in the upcoming King’s speech (though its subsequently been reported that the latter is unlikely). The Minister also included planner’s top ask, more resourcing in planning, in her immediate to do list and spoke regularly about the importance of giving recent fee increases legal effect as soon as possible (a process which has now begun in Parliament).
Setting out their long-term stall for voters, many of the policies discussed at length seem targeted at blue wall towns and city suburbs – described in explicitly spatial terms (another of our planifesto asks). The Prime Minister spoke about the importance of smaller-scale transport projects (note: not city-to-city HS2) outside of London, the Housing Secretary announced a new Government ‘Long-term plan for Towns’ (note: not so much for cities) and a focus on Cambridge, Leeds and - in a more aggressive way - London. Meanwhile, the Transport Secretary pitched his ‘Long-term plan’ at drivers - a group of users especially clustered in suburban areas – rather than on the broader system they use.
‘Long-term’ proposals made by political parties tend to sit more comfortably and constructively with planning. However, the Conservative Party still has a long way to go to show planners how their immediate planning reforms will change things now and help to secure long-term outcomes before the next General Election. We’re yet to see if the party will follow in Ben Everitt MP’s footsteps and look at incorporating the asks and ambitions of the RTPI’s Planifesto to help them do so.
In Liverpool, Starmer’s emerging team were eager to outline their vision for the future and quick to strike out against the status quo. Their chosen electoral formula it seems is for planning detail to do their heavy lifting with the former and to let our housing crisis do the latter all on its own.
In government, Labour would need to explain what “real Levelling Up” means – in what may feel like a Groundhog Day for planners. Based on their speeches the new Shadow Housing Secretary, Angela Rayner, would say it's more about helping working people with their most fundamental needs. The Labour Leader and Shadow Chancellor however used coarser language about “bulldozing” or “taking on our antiquated planning system” on the conference podium. Starmer even went a step further the day after conference, declaring himself a ‘YIMBY’ to the - equal amounts - joy and derision of online planning crusaders.
Without the need to choose between these approaches yet, the differences are of degree and sequencing rather than fundamentals. They’re also dwarfed by the chicken-and-egg conundrum inherent in the party’s economic policy: how to create enough growth to fund public services with so little Exchequer spending power to draw on and so much to fund?
Given planning’s role in the party’s story to voters so far it seems likely that the first months of a Labour administration would involve additional resources and changing policies with a ‘builders not blockers’ ring.
Shadow Housing and other Ministers spoke about laying the groundwork by following many of the suggestions outlined in the RTPI’s Planifesto – many of which do not require parliamentary time – like reforming our developer contributions systems, improving local plans and strengthening public sector capacity to expedite planning decisions. Funding for these is clearly in consideration with a Stamp Duty rise, foreign buyers’ tax and Planning Performance Agreements all mentioned in party literature.
It hasn’t gone unnoticed by planners or the party that some of these would borrow from the Government’s current planning reform trajectory and others from Labour’s past. Not all will be smooth sailing.
For example, proposals for fast-track permissions routes for battery factories, lab space and 5G or energy bill incentives, etc… might prove difficult to deliver quickly without sufficient leadership, resourcing and local buy-in. The party’s longer-term proposals for a New Towns revival and in the party’s approach to addressing the lack of strategic planning and large infrastructure project delivery will also need careful consideration. In both areas, the RTPI’s Planifesto should prove a useful tool for the party to unleash the power of planning.
In Bournemouth, an intergenerational showdown stole the show as young, pro-housing liberals voted down more experienced voices on the conference floor.
On the conference floor Housing Spokesperson, Helen Morgan MP, argued that a social housing – rather than an all-tenures – target and senior parliamentarians like Tim Farron MP, Lord Stunnell and others with Ministerial experience from the coalition like Stephen Williams argued vociferously against the principal of top-down targets. However, their encouragement to focus on what could be achieved at a local level instead held little water with young members clad in ‘Build More Bloody Houses’ T-shirts behind a motion to introduce a 380,000 housebuilding target.
This will certainly make the party’s election strategy more difficult. Party leader Ed Davey MP has previously suggested “a community-led approach to housing” is preferable when speaking about contested seats in the South East.
It is therefore likely that the party may look more to other planning policies that were supported at a conference in their campaign literature: better aligning homes and infrastructure, stronger financial incentives for brownfield development and infrastructure investment, improving the local plan process (with clear consultation requirements and ‘use it or lose it’ permissions), supporting councils to play more of a ‘master developer’ role for social housing.
These would all contribute to the ambitions outlined in the RTPI’s Planifesto. Less savoury anti-developer sentiment however may also play a part in the party’s pitch to voters and is another way that our Planifesto can help to keep a focus on what should be achieved, rather than who should or shouldn’t achieve it.
Conservative losses in a slew of recent by-elections have increased the pressure on all political parties in an already complicated electoral map.
That is why our Planifesto continues to be such an important tool planners can use to keep the power of proactive planning in the minds of political parties and their candidates. Away from the noise, its asks and ambitions can help to keep political conversations about planning constructive, forward-thinking and outcomes-orientated in the run-up to the next General Election. Its breadth can also help planners to focus on issues that could very well get overlooked by the parties' platforms.
Find out how you can get involved in the political campaign using our new campaign toolkit here.