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What should Labour do now?

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.

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