The run-up to Christmas had been hotly anticipated by planners and developers. The Accelerated Planning White Paper, the housing delivery test results for 2019 and the final report of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission were among the expected government announcements.
However, the announcement of a 12 December general election has put the brakes on them until after a new government is formed. The election period officially started on Wednesday, when Parliament was dissolved, triggering a "purdah" period when proposed policy announcements are postponed to avoid civil servants being accused of political bias. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) rushed out a number of announcements before purdah kicked in, including several secretary of state decisions, but the white paper and the delivery test results were not among them. Both had been earmarked for a November publication.
Asked about the expected policy announcements, an MHCLG spokeswoman pointed to Cabinet Office guidance which forbids departments from handling any "statements that refer to the future intentions of the government" during purdah. The spokeswoman confirmed that the housing delivery test, though based on existing policy, would be subject to the same purdah rules and would also be delayed until a new government is formed after the election.
Some in the sector understand that the white paper is already largely written. If the Conservatives win the election, most expect the document to be published shortly afterwards. "A Conservative win is likely to mean business as usual in terms of the current change agenda," said Simon Ricketts, partner at law firm Town Legal.
The white paper could also survive in some form under any future Labour government, according to Matt Thomson, head of planning at the Campaign to Protect Rural England. "It could be argued to be non-political, so it might happen even if the Conservatives don’t win outright," he said. "But I suspect Labour would want the focus of any planning reforms to lean slightly more towards community well-being than outright speed of decision-making." Roger Hepher, director at planning consultancy HGH Planning, said even if a Labour administration dropped the white paper, some of its trailed proposals, including higher planning application fees in return for better service and measures to assist smaller builders, might emerge in a different form.
Commentators also expected the controversial housing delivery test to survive if Labour gets the keys to Number 10. Clarke said: "Labour have called for a review of the planning system with a 'new duty to deliver affordable homes'. This might also stretch to a reconfiguration of the housing delivery test as the focus shifts towards delivery of ‘genuinely affordable homes’."
Hepher said: "I’ve a feeling the housing delivery test is here to stay, though a Labour government might bow to councils’ lobbying to water it down." If the Tories win, Stuart Andrews, head of planning at law firm Eversheds, said the test is likely to be "sustained and bolstered".
Most commentators also believe the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission report into housing design – originally due to be published before the end of the year – will survive into a new administration. Iain Painting, partner at planning consultancy Barton Willmore, said previous Labour governments often produced design guides, adding: "I can see Labour producing more paper on design if they get back into power."
Another government initiative with major implications for planning and development is the new Environment Bill. Published last month [LINK], the bill includes a mandatory requirement for developers to secure an overall ten per cent biodiversity net gain in all new schemes while local authorities will have to draw up spatial "local nature recovery strategies". However, the bill failed to complete its passage through Parliament before dissolution, which, according to the Parliament website, means it "will make no further progress" until the next Parliament is formed. Eversheds' Andrews said: "As far as I'm concerned, what's happening from a green point of view is unlikely to change. There's a recognition in both parties that carbon control is important but whether that means the bill would survive a Labour government in its current shape is unknowable." Will Savage, head of the Birmingham office for communications consultancy Snapdragon at PLMR, added: "For all parties, the rapid rise of the climate emergency as a dominant issue will dictate planning policy more than party politics."
Hepher said the major differences on policy direction are more evident within, rather than between the two main parties. A split over the level of obligations placed on private developers exists within Labour, he said. While among the Conservatives, he said: "There are those there who would resist rolling back the green belt at all costs, whereas others such as Savid Javid are more pragmatic on the subject. There are those who would further deregulate - for example, extending permitted development rights - and those who are concerned that deregulation may have gone too far, and at the expense of improving design standards."
This means that even if the Conservatives retain power, a reshuffle could lead to changes in policy direction, according to Andrews. On proposals to expand permitted development (PD) rights to allow upward extensions, which were earmarked for the white paper, he said: "I would like to think a different secretary of state would realise what a half-witted idea this is." Edward Clarke, associate director at planning consultancy Lichfields, said: "It's unlikely that a Labour government would continue with PD rights in its current form, particularly the office to residential conversions."