The planning promises expected in the general election manifestos

While the Conservatives' manifesto is likely to continue the current government's focus on the 'beauty' agenda and further planning deregulation to speed up housing delivery, observers predict that Labour will make building affordable homes and land value capture key policy pledges.

Election 20196: housing to be key issue (pic: Getty)
Election 20196: housing to be key issue (pic: Getty)

The main political parties are widely expected by insiders to launch their election manifestos shortly after this magazine’s publication. Below, we examine what the documents are likely to promise on planning.

Conservative Party

Above anything else, insiders say the Conservatives will be keen to avoid what is regarded in Tory circles as the debacle of the 2017 manifesto, an 88-page tome full of minute policy detail that left the party open to attack on many fronts. Chris Rumfitt, founder of public affairs consultancy Field Consulting, described the document as a "complete disaster", while Jack Airey, head of housing at right-leaning think-tank Policy Exchange, said the party will this time want a manifesto with less detail. "Much of planning policy is too technical to get into in this document – they won’t want to get stuck in the weeds." Hence it is not clear how much – if at all – the document will get in to planning matters specifically. "If they’ve got something they can cherry-pick that they think is vote-winning, they might put it in," said Rumfitt. "Otherwise, it might just be very generic."

Housing, however, is bound to be mentioned, and with housing secretary Robert Jenrick recently telling a Policy Exchange event that the 300,000 homes-a-year ambition could even be exceeded, few think it likely the Conservatives will drop that ambition. Rumfitt said: "There will remain a bit of an arms race on overall housing numbers between the parties, while avoiding as much as possible any specific place references." Policy Exchange’s Airey said the Conservative Party will also want to send a strong message on environmental issues, as indicated by the government’s pre-election announcement of a moratorium on fracking.

Should the Conservatives decide to include planning policy pledges in the manifesto, the most obvious source for them will be the housing ministry’s two current planning policy thrusts: the "beauty" agenda; and the Accelerated Planning White Paper, which had been promised for this month, but has now been shelved until after the election. The white paper had been trailed as containing measures to speed up and "simplify" the planning process by relaxing some rules, cutting conditions and improving resources for local authorities.

The interim report of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission had suggested making beauty and placemaking a central aim of the planning system, while Jenrick has promised to introduce a national design code in 2020. Toby Lloyd, former housing advisor to ex-Prime Minister Theresa May, said: "You can certainly expect rhetoric about beauty," while Airey said: "There should be the usual but necessary commitment to making planning quicker and less risky, along with lots of talk about beautiful homes."

Upon becoming Prime Minister, Johnson announced a review of planning rules, and Sarah Bevan, director of planning and development at business lobby group London First, said: "We know that both Johnson and Jenrick are very keen on deregulation of the planning system."

Hugh Ellis, policy director at the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA), said: "The interesting point will be who wins the argument around beauty, as Conservatism at a local government level really does care about it." He sees a tension between this and a drive to deregulate - such as the expansion of permitted development (PD) rights for new housing in the agenda informing the white paper. "The truth is this tension has got to be resolved to have a successful policy."

In addition, Lloyd said the manifesto will likely contain much rhetoric around home ownership, but that, "under the bonnet", the policy of a multi-tenure approach to housebuilding is likely to continue. Experts expect the document to contain little – or little change – on issues like green belt protection and support for specific infrastructure projects such as Heathrow Airport’s expansion, which Johnson previously vocally opposed but has not attempted to stop since becoming Prime Minister. "Making specific pledges around planning is often a good way to lose votes," said Airey, "and not a good way to win them."

Labour Party

In contrast to the Conservatives, the Labour Party will be trying to repeat the success of its 2017 manifesto, widely perceived as having contributed to the party’s unexpectedly strong election result. The most high profile pledges relevant to planners are likely to be around affordable housing. Whereas in 2017, Labour pledged to build 100,000 "genuinely affordable" homes a year, shadow housing secretary John Healey in April this year pledged that a Labour government will build a million such homes, though no timescale was stated.

The big unknown is what will happen to the work of the as-yet-unfinished Labour Planning Commission, which was originally supposed to report this autumn. Planning understands that the report has not yet been finalised – prior to the election being called, publication had been delayed until the New Year – while shadow planning minister Roberta Blackman Woods, who had been leading the review, has announced she is stepping down as an MP. Luke Murphy, a former advisor to Labour shadow housing minister and director of the housing team at think tank the IPPR, said the commission’s work was now likely to feed directly in to the manifesto.

Despite this uncertainty, Labour shadow ministers have made a number of statements indicating the direction the manifesto is likely to go in. Healey has committed to repealing the current government’s expansion of PD rights and has talked about the creation of what it calls an "English sovereign land trust", under which local authorities would buy land for homes at close to existing use value using reformed compulsory purchase rules. Before stepping down, Blackman Woods pledged that Labour would draw up a national spatial plan.

Two policy papers – Housing for the Many, published in April last year; and Land for the Many, published this August – contain much of the thinking behind these announcements. Housing for the Many proposed using the planning system to deliver more genuinely affordable housing, making the New Homes Bonus more generous, and pushing forward a new generation of new towns. Land for the Many proposed new development corporations funded by a regional development bank, with local authorities expected to take a lead on development.

Talking about the manifesto, Lloyd said: "I’m expecting lots of noise on land reform, allowing people to buy homes cheaply by taking the cost of land out of the equation, and something on rent control. We can also expect the planning system to be given more teeth to demand affordable housing."

The TCPA’s Ellis, who commissioned last year’s Raynsford Review of the planning system, led by former Labour planning minister Nick Raynsford, said: "Labour will be trying to set out quite a distinctive agenda on planning, and I expect a strong commitment to national planning." He added that it was as-yet unclear whether the party would go as far as the review recommended by making well-being the central purpose of the planning system.

Other parties

The Liberal Democrats election manifesto is likely to promise more control for local authorities, greater community engagement and to "be much stronger on climate change" than either the Tories or Labour, according to Ellis. "I’m sure they’ll also commit to reversing the expansion of permitted development."

Richard Steer, chairman of construction consultancy Gleeds and housing spokesman for the Lib Dem’s business and entrepreneurs network, said the party would likely support new garden cities and more funding for local authority planning teams. "I’m sure they will not fall into the trap exhibited by other parties of making wild promises of building hospitals and houses without first investing in the public sector planners who are a vital part of the planning system."

The Brexit Party has said it would publish a "contract with the British people". Little is known of the party’s non-Brexit policies, with a pledge to scrap the High Speed Two (HS2) rail line the only concrete planning-related pledge made so far.

Scrapping HS2 is a policy the Brexit Party is likely to share with the Green Party, which has also said little about planning issues, but in 2017 promised "strong" planning protections for designated environments such as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the scrapping of Heathrow Airport’s expansion and the national road-building programme.

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