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Planning reform – what could we expect from Labour?

However we get a Labour government, whether they have a majority, are in ‘confidence and supply’ with the Lib Dems or, worst case scenario, they end up as a minority government, in opposition they have promised a lot on planning reform. Starmer and Reeves have toured city boardrooms promising a magic wand to help fix some of the property industry’s regular complaints.


There are however a couple of quite major snags: first, governments in precarious situations with small or no majorities do not do controversial stuff. And as the Tories can attest, despite sitting on an 80 seat majority, planning reform is very controversial and not very popular. The second problem is as difficult as the first and would persist even if Labour did get its mythical landslide: “there is no money”, in the words of former Labour Treasury Chief Secretary, Liam Byrne. So anything they do has to be done on the cheap.


There are a few obvious conclusions we can therefore draw on planning reform:


Largescale planning reform – Because of the reasons above, it is safe to assume that the much hyped largescale planning reform isn’t going to happen anytime soon after the General Election. Beware of politicians promising sweets before polling day. But Labour needs to do something because it has promised so much in uncosted ‘big talk’.


NPPF changes – The obvious, easy and cheap thing to do is to reverse many of the recent Tory NPPF changes which they have already indicated is part of their plan. This of course is exactly why in the last few months a significant number of local authorities have suddenly started motoring more quickly on plan making. They have surmised, reasonably, that the recent NPPF situation is the most benign environment in which they can make a new plan which radically reduces their proposed housing numbers. It will be interesting to see how an incoming Labour government tackles this new ‘work in progress’ activity.


White paper – In terms of further planning reform, the next obvious, easy and cheap thing Labour can do is to give us yet another planning white paper, laying out how they would like to change the planning system in the future, perhaps after a bigger and better win at the next General Election.


Greybelt – One of the more sensible and practical proposals Labour has come forward with in opposition is the so-called ‘greybelt’, the previously developed land with often quite unattractive uses already sitting within the 14 greenbelts. The question is how to bring this forward? Does this sit in a future white paper, in which case it will be slow to come and have no meaningful impact anytime soon. Or could they introduce a specific new piece of legislation focused on just this and maybe a small number of other ancillary changes which are easier to make? Could this be in a first year’s King's Speech?


Affordable housing – Obviously every Labour government wants to build more affordable housing because it plays well to their electorate. One of the challenges for incoming secretaries of state is they quickly discover that doing anything quickly is anathema to the planning system because every lever they yank on is attached to 317 local authorities which all have their own ideas in any case and always move at the speed of a stunned slug. To counter this, historically previous Labour secretaries of state have reached for the lever that is labelled ‘housing associations’. If they can manage to prise even a small amount of money out of the Treasury and throw this at the RPs, then they can usually get affordable housing numbers pointing upwards. With almost all RPs effectively out of the land market at the moment, a modest change here could deliver something to boast about.

Whoever forms the next government and however it is constituted, it’s going to be a very tough place indeed. Taxes are maxed out, debt is historically high, government spending is under pressure like never before and all the current Government’s problems will still be there the day after polling day. Planning is but one of them. And it’s a big one.

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