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Unusually, planning, development and housebuilding have played a central part in Labour's rhetoric during this General Election. And we know what their policy agenda is because they've laid it out for us over the last few months. The aim is to “build, build, build” according to the journalists’ write ups, achieving more than 300,000 new homes per annum, thus delivering 1.5 million new homes in the next Parliament. There are several terms we could conjure up to describe these numbers, some using fruity Anglo Saxon English, but let’s just settle on the description of ‘unlikely’.


As the chart from the ONS clearly shows below, the cold hard reality is this: since the public sector stopped building new homes at scale in the 1970s, housebuilding has broadly oscillated between 100,000-200,000 new homes per annum ever since. The lovely political rhetoric from politicians of 300,000 per annum – the Lib Dems even promised 380,000, quite why no one really knows – is just noise.

In essence, the Labour party’s plans to change all this consists of the following components:


Reversing the recent NPPF changes so that top down housebuilding targets exist once more. You know, those same targets that delivered the fewest homes since 1923. Those ones. A magic policy for sure.


A search for ‘new towns’ will commence as soon as Angela Rayner’s bovver boots arrive in the deep pile carpet in DLUHC, or whatever Labour may rebrand it at extra cost to us taxpayers. As if we don't already know where they all are! In the real world we all know there just aren't a whole load of undiscovered new towns hiding under the bracken in Surrey Heath, Maidstone or Sevenoaks. As night follows day, all the current Tory garden cities/villages, which were once Labour eco-towns and prior to that Tory new settlements, will now be reannounced as Labour new towns. And lo! Behold new town Northstowe! Praise God, we are saved! A pernickety point we know, but these large sites usually throw off around 100-200 new homes a year, so they are not really going to nudge the annual housebuilding needle.


Worry not because Labour will give us 300 new planning officers. Yes, 300! [Swoon!] Inspiring stuff. So that's less than one new planning officer for each of our 317 planning authorities. Damp squib, anyone?


But it will all be OK because…[cue inspiring music]…Labour will order local authorities to review the greenbelt and thus the greybelt will be born. Now one doesn't want to seem awkward but that greenbelt/greybelt thingy is located in all the Tory and Lib Dem held anti-development planning authorities, right? The sound of local political foot dragging is already deafening.


Labour has another trick up its sleeve, stripping back regulation. Sounds great. Which regulation exactly? Water neutrality? No, they’re in favour of that one. Nutrient neutrality? Nope, want to keep that one too. Not biodiversity net gain, surely? No, keeping that. Perhaps we have spotted a problem. Every government promises reduced regulation and every government, particularly Labour governments, add more.


In her recent speech during the campaign Rayner promised us beauty, gorgeous Georgian town houses, wonderful mansion blocks etc. Small point: isn't the Office for Place already working on that one, without seemingly much affect?


And the latest wheeze, which sounds great during an election campaign but would be very difficult to actually deliver in workable legislation, is the so called ‘first dibs’ policy, where local residents get the chance to buy new homes first. How this could practically work, God alone knows. Which housebuilder will say, ‘we’re going to sell this home more quickly and more cheaply to these guys over here, dear shareholders, because they’re a bit more local’. Good luck with that one.


Labour has also inevitably reached for the planning reform lever. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. Ladies and gentlemen, drum roll please, we give you ‘big planning reform’: tried it in 2022, 2020, 2015, 2012, 2011, 2004…we could go on and on of course. Did any of that painful, time-consuming and political capital expensive effort have any meaningful impact upon our planning system and our housing crisis? Answer: errr…no. And big planning reform is just so slow. Cast your mind back to New Labour last time. Elected in 1997, it took them seven years to deliver the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004. And of course, when the inevitable change of government occurs in the future, it all gets undone anyway. What followed Labour’s 2004 Act? The 2011 NPPF and the 2012 Localism Act. All change, please, all change!


So, what should Labour do to help us all?


First off, let’s discuss economic reality: there ain’t no money! So whatever they do, it needs to be cheap. And let’s also add some political reality: they need to demonstrate some results within five years, most likely by May 2029, so they can boast about it at the next General Election. So it needs to be quick. Also, what has worked well in recent history is small scale, very targeted change to the existing system, making it work better: the NPPF, the new use class order etc.


So here is a list of simple, cheap, deliverable and quick things that could have a major impact. They are not as eye catching as ‘big planning reform’ but they may actually work.


Immediate term


Redeploy Rayner – Simply put, the growth agenda and planning, development and housebuilding’s role within it, are simply too important to entrust to someone who has zero experience and will most likely be less than competent at running a large department. We need a serious reformer. Angela Rayner has her useful and effective place as metropolitan elite Starmer’s 2024 version of John Prescott, the Deputy PM who can reach the parts of the Labour Party dear old Sir Dull just can’t. And keeping the Labour family together when they have a large majority but no money will be a big job, one for which Rayner is well suited. But making her the point person on the growth crusade is planning for almost certain failure. (See the pun there? Still got it after all these years!)


Housebuilder peer – Appoint an actual expert, with knowledge and a track record, a current or recently retired leader of a large housebuilder, as the minister responsible for making planning, development and housebuilding actually work. Chuck them a peerage and get them on board ASAP. And clearly define their mission.


Kick-start affordable housing – Right now we have RPs out of the land market, out of development and declining to even bid for Section 106 housing. This must change urgently. Again, reach for the ermine, pluck a redoubtable current or recently retired leader of a large RP and get them to devise a plan to kick affordable housing up the bum. And that probably means throwing some money, but not a huge lot of it, at Homes England or RP funding. The right two people here, working in conjunction with each other and with the express support and a mission clearly underlined with the PM’s authority, might actually make a difference. And please, for the love of God, don’t start spawning new departments and new departmental names. It changes nothing, just wasting of time and money.


Short term


Mandatory training for planning councillors – Throw a small amount of money at the alphabet soup of property organisations (RICS, RTPI, POS etc) and require any councillor who sits on a planning committee to attend a one day course run by them covering (a) the planning system, (b) national planning policy and (c) and their own local plan. Require them to have refresher training every two years. Our chairman used to sit on a local authority planning committee. It was a joke. None of the councillors had a clue and it’s worse now which is why we see increasing numbers of politically motivated committee refusals.


Threat of surcharge – Change the law to clearly give the power to the SoS to surcharge repeat offender councils/councillors who continually lose at appeal. The SoS will likely never have to use this power, as the mere threat will focus the minds of those activist councillors that have been enjoying themselves rather too much. If really necessary, surcharge would likely only be used every now and then as an example beating, ‘pour encourage les autres’.


Medium term


A realistic plan for increasing planning officer numbers – Again, throw a small amount of money at the RICS, RTPI, POS so they can loudly promote planning as a career choice on the annual university milk round. And – here's the kicker – commit that after x years’ service (pick a number) as a public sector planner, your student debt is cancelled.


Longer term

20 year plan – Produce a 20 year housebuilding strategy, broken into five year bite size chunks coterminous with each Parliament, where a realistic target is given and with the above people entrusted and supported to deliver it. Development and housing are long-term games and short termism, for example having in effect an annual planning and housing minister since 1997, has bedevilled the whole sector for far too long.


This is not a flashy plan, but God knows we've had enough of those in recent times and they have had little to no effect, now consigned to the syllabus of planning schools and the government digital archive. Let's forget the idea of some Big Bang, let's get our crayons out, how can we all reimagine the planning system, blue sky thinking, total waste of time. Politicians and civil servants will all have great fun. We will all spend months responding to pointless consultation. But none of it will have any meaningful impact.


Instead, let's focus on small scale, surgical interventions to make the existing system work better, work faster, work harder. If the target really is 1.5 million homes by 2029, and we clearly all think that's nonsense, we need to get building pretty damn quick.

As the saying goes, ‘success has many fathers but failure is an orphan’. And so it is that those desperately wanting to look clever and say ‘I told you so’ are all now pretending they predicted such a humungous loss for the Tories. Of course, no one actually predicted the scale of what looks like the historic rout about to be visited upon the Tories. But why are the Tories, a party which won a landslide just five short years ago, doing so badly? It’s a question which has many quick superficial answers, but in reality, deeper analysis comes up with rather more fundamental reasons.


Self inflicted damage


The most obvious immediate cause is the cataclysmically badly run election campaign. From the timing, which just seems inept and completely allowed Farage into the race (in Oct/Nov he would have already been in the US getting his big payday at the Presidential election), to the farcical launch where Sunak was half drowned whilst the New Labour anthem ‘things can only get better’ boomed out of some speakers, to the D-day moment of madness which angered the Tories’ key target voters, right up to the dull as ditch water manifesto flop that had nothing exciting, no juicy tax cuts, in it at all. Now we have ‘election date betting gate’, not very snappy but impactful nonetheless. These are all self-inflicted damage. Normally in elections ‘stuff’ is done to you; in this one the Tories have done the ‘stuff’ to themselves! So far, so bad. A perfect short term crisis. No campaign could have won this election for the Tories, but a few points can make the difference between a narrow defeat and a catastrophe – and it’s over those few points that campaigns are waged.


And there was of course the backdrop of some awful but specifically Tory factors in the years leading up to this election. The crazy Brexit period and hapless May government when literally no one was in charge of the country for days at a time. The unrelenting months of Boris/party-gate which just incensed so many voters who had endured much hardship and heartbreak during the Covid lockdowns. The endless failure to tackle the exponential rise in immigration (both legal and illegal). And then of course the tax rises to pay for the Tory’s largesse during the furlough/lockdown period. All these were medium term sins which have vested deeply in voters’ memories.


“Events dear boy events”


In that famous Harold MacMillan response when asked why governments lose elections, we see an eternal truth. Imagine if all the above hadn’t happened, would the Tories be losing badly anyway? Here’s the case for that argument:


Natural electoral cycle – It is a matter of record that in most western democracies, a political party usually only gets two shots at the title. Your first term is all about ‘change’; your second all about ‘delivery’. And then you lose, because everything that’s gone wrong over that 10 year period is hung heavily around your neck. But occasionally, usually more by accident than design, you get a third term – thank you Mr Corbyn. But the rule is that at the next election, your loss is even worse and normally very bad indeed. Because by then, 15 years of problems around your neck finally drown you. And that is the underlying main issue for the Tories.


Radicalised electorate – But there is another new strategic phenomenon which is exacerbating the Tories’ situation. We the voters have, election by election, retreated from the previously established tribal voting pattern over the last 30+ years or more. The floating vote and the impact of tactical voting has grown and its impact is more pronounced. And when confronted by the aftermath of a trio of painful events – Brexit, Covid and the Ukraine war/cost of living rise – we voters have started to more wildly swing from one extreme to the next; a landslide for Boris in one cycle followed by another landslide for Starmer in the next one.


Post Covid voter payback – And, last but not least, we have the punishment beating that voters have been dishing out to every government that was in power during Covid and thus locked us all up. From New Zealand to Germany, from Argentina to probably quite soon France, if you locked up your voters during Covid, then we voters punish you ‘big time’ at the next election. Our reckoning has taken a longer time to come just because of way our elections cycle has worked.


So maybe the self-inflicted beating the Tory party seems to have visited upon itself is merely the painful icing on the cake. Most likely a big loss was baked in already.

For a moment, let’s just imagine the Tories lose this election really badly. Crazy thinking, we know! Sunak will fall on his sword and we’re off to the races. So who will be the next Tory leader?


It’s a tricky question to answer because it rather depends on which Tory MPs are still standing, and that’s difficult to divine right now. Exactly what constitutes a ‘safe Tory seat’ at this moment is a rather moot point.


There is also the small matter of the election process itself. In essence, there is a ‘selectorate’ and then an electorate. The ‘selectorate’ are Tory MPs who decide via a run off which two candidates should be put before Tory party members. The membership then gets their one person one vote moment. If we recall, that’s how Truss beat Sunak; the electorate is typically to the right of Tory MPs. So this time round, Tory MPs may be rather more astute as to whom they select.


Let’s look at the serious runners and riders and take a punt:


Penny Mordaunt – Seemingly the eternal candidate who’s ego is perhaps rather ahead of her capabilities. She is a famously eloquent Commons performer, but with very rehearsed lines. There is a slight problem though: on most estimates, she is going to lose her seat. So she may not be around for the fun.


James Cleverly – He’s run before but apparently doesn’t want to have another go. So we’ll count him out for now.


Grant Shapps – Chance of losing his seat? Are we allowed to say 99%? So dead on arrival then, let’s move on, as we’re running out of candidates!


Robert Jenrick – An uber smooth media performer who was a Brexiteer and, wanting a tougher line on immigration, resigned on a matter of principle. Not many do that these days. Old school. He could go down well with the old peeps, sorry party members. He’s the son-in-law they’d all want to marry their daughter.


Kemi Badenoch – A Brexiteer and right winger, and also a calm media performer who relishes destroying the Woke and all their evil works. She’s a bookie favourite but has had little time in the frontbench trenches. Does she have the personality for it and could she win over the Parliamentary party? She is a woman however and from an ethnic minority, so take that Labour!


Priti Patel – Now a freshly minted Dame, in real life not as in ‘pantomime’, although some might not see it that way. She is a hate figure for the Left and has had some serious media slip ups, so may be seen as not exactly a steady hand.


Suella Braverman – Deary me, I think we can discount this one. She enjoys the media attention but is seemingly dead with the Parliamentary party. Ain’t never going to happen. Although she seems apparently blissfully unaware of that so will no doubt have a go.


Tom Tugendhat – Very much on the left of the Tory party and thus may have limited appeal to the Tory electorate. And for a long time stayed out of ministerial office, only recently finally achieving ministerial rank. So rather inexperienced.


In summary, who knows, as until we see which Tory MPs are still breathing post election, there is no way to guess who will even be at the start line let alone actually cross it. But what is striking is just how many female and ethnic minority candidates the Tories can field. There’s a lesson for other parties there somewhere.

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