Five things we learned from the Conservative Party conference

The Conservative Party conference saw government ministers set out clear plans to focus on housing by facilitating the neighbourhood planning process, putting pressure on developers to speed up delivery and radically increasing brownfield development.

Javid: tackling the housing crisis is a “moral duty” and will involve taking unpopular decisions (pic: Shutterstock)
Javid: tackling the housing crisis is a “moral duty” and will involve taking unpopular decisions (pic: Shutterstock)

Even ahead of Prime Minister Theresa May’s conference address on Wednesday, after Planning went to press this week, her promise that her reshaped government would do "far more" to provide sufficient homes of sufficient quality dominated the proceedings. Certainly, May’s housing and planning minister, Gavin Barwell, had a busy time, reputedly attending 17 events and meetings on the topic. Here are five key lessons on housing issues that emerged from the conference hall and fringe meetings.

1. A new housing white paper is expected to be published later this year. Speaking at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham this week, communities secretary Sajid Javid pledged to take "unprecedented steps" to boost housing delivery, saying housing is his "number one priority" and that tackling the housing crisis is a "moral duty". "Everyone agrees we need to build more homes, but too many of us object to them being built next to us. We’ve got to change that attitude", Javid said. The minister said that councillors and MPs have to be "prepared to make difficult calls, even if they’re unpopular". He also said that big developers have to release their stranglehold on supply: "It’s time to stop sitting on landbanks and delaying build-out. Home buyers must come first." He said the government wants to "radically increase" brownfield development and secure a higher density of housing around stations.

2. Housebuilders may be required to provide timetables for building out schemes. Under the idea, floated by planning minister Gavin Barwell at a conference fringe event, councils granting permission for new homes could expect developers to set out clear timetables for building programmes and "hold people to those commitments". Barwell said planning reforms to speed housing permissions need to be accompanied by a right for councils to tell developers "to build out more quickly". The minister also said he intends to focus on housing supply in the one-third of English local authorities where the gap between the number of homes being built and levels of household growth is widest.

3. The government sees improved infrastructure as crucial to urban development and regeneration. Business and energy secretary Greg Clark told the party that infrastructure and clean energy "must be at the heart" of the government’s industrial policy. He said key ingredients include upgraded infrastructure, more resilient, cleaner energy supplies and improved education and training. Meanwhile, chancellor Philip Hammond said he will "recommit" to government advisory body the National Infrastructure Commission – despite the absence in last month’s Neighbourhood Planning Bill of any plans to place it on a statutory footing.

4. Government help for neighbourhood planning groups is a priority for the planning minister. Speaking at a fringe event, Gavin Barwell said government-commissioned experts could be called in to help neighbourhoods struggling with the plan preparation process. "It’s about paying for people who could go around the country, hold people’s hands, take them through the process and provide the necessary advice and experience," he said. Barwell also made clear that he wants to see more neighbourhood plans drawn up in deprived urban areas, where take-up of the policy has been low, to secure a uniform spread. He said he is a "passionate believer" in neighbourhood planning, reasoning that if people have more control over their environment they tend to support more development. Julia Unwin, chief executive of charity the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, told the same event neighbourhood planning currently "locks out" many poorer neighbourhoods.

5. London mayor Sadiq Khan will use powers to call in planning applications sparingly. Deputy mayor for housing James Murray told a fringe event organised by the Westminster Property Association the Labour mayor’s aim is to call in "relatively few applications". He said the intention is to be consistent; to set a clear direction for the GLA and boroughs "and use the call-in power if a particular application is not moving in that direction". Murray also said Khan’s mayoral team is keen to improve the connection between new infrastructure and new housing.

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