After nine years of austerity, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been clear that he intends to overhaul traditional Conservative Party dogma by increasing the levels of government spending and investment. A key part of Johnson’s policy will be to shift government’s focus from the South East and London towards the cities and regions which gifted him a majority in the recent general election.
The Prime Minister has been at pains to ensure he is viewed as a disrupter, and the man who can champion the Midlands, Wales and the North whilst increasing spending on public services and simultaneously keeping tax at current levels.
Johnson’s overall aim may be to stimulate private investment and prime growth in the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine. However, this could also be seen as a wider strategy of transforming regions and cities across England and Wales – making them more desirable to live and work in – thus helping to alleviate the housing crisis around London and the south-east.
Johnson’s tentative approach to planning
Despite the overall policy shift towards higher public spending and lower-income voters, the housing policy maintains much of the status quo. It is still about expecting the private sector to deliver housing numbers and there is a big focus on increasing home ownership. There is some planning reform, but the political commitment to the Green Belt remains. In short, very similar to the City Hall years.
There are however some notable shifts for the sector.
The manifesto proposes a ‘First Home Scheme’, with section106 agreements used to fund homes offered to local first-time buyers at discounted market rate. It also proposes an ‘infrastructure first’ approach to section106 agreements.
Clearly more detail is needed about how these policies will work in practice. But they are more interesting for the signals they are attempting to send. This government will expect developers to focus more on identifying and mobilising local public support. They see it as the role of the developer to build grassroots support for new housing development, as the most effective way of getting more people into home ownership.
They will expect scheme promoters to adopt a campaigning mindset – giving local politicians the confidence that local people back development. This provides an opportunity. Developers who can demonstrate best practice in building grassroots support will gain a more sympathetic ear from this administration.
The Queen’s Speech provides a range of bills, not all of which are relevant to the planning sector. The more applicable bills mentioned by the Queen, and their description are outlined below.
“New measures will be brought forward to protect tenants and to improve building safety. My Government will take steps to support home ownership, including by making homesavailable at a discount for local first-time buyers.”
“My Ministers will bring forward measures to ensure that every part of the United Kingdom can prosper. My Government will prioritise investment in infrastructure and world-leading science research and skills, in order to unleash productivity and improve daily life for communities across the country.”
“It will give communities more control over how investment is spent so that they can decide what is best for them.”
“To support business, my government will increase tax credits for research and development, establish a National Skills Fund, and bring forward changes to business rates. New laws will accelerate the delivery of gigabit capable broadband.”
“To ensure people can depend on the transport network, measures will be developed to provide for minimum levels of service during transport strikes.”
“My Government will continue to take steps to meet the world-leading target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. It will continue to lead the way in tackling global climate change, hosting the COP26 Summit in 2020. To protect and improve the environment for future generations, a bill will enshrine in law environmental principles and legally binding targets, including for air quality.”
“A Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission will be established. Work will be taken forward to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.”
What does it mean?
Politically, the Queen’s Speech appears to have been worded in a way which brandishes the government’s ‘One Nation’ credentials – something Mr. Johnson has made a conscious effort to promote since the election.
Whilst the Queen’s Speech only provides a basic overview of the Government’s plans, there are snippets of information which are particularly relevant to the development sector including laws to improve building safety and discount rates for first-time buyers. The guarantee of environmental protection should also be noted by developers as the government increasingly pushes their green agenda on the private sector through law-abiding environmental principles and binding targets. Importantly, this tells us that we can’t expect any radical changes on the green belt or land reform in an attempt to alleviate the housing crisis.
The Conservative manifesto and the Prime Minister’s own statements concerning investing in areas outside the South-East were relayed in the Queens Speech with specific mentioning of regional investment and devolution. These policies are also a way for the government to reward the traditional Labour towns and regions which voted Conservative at the recent general election.
The government’s commitment to improving broadband infrastructure and investing more in research and development is also a likely by-product of the focus on regional investment which they hope will act as a stimulus for growth outside of the South-East.
Clearly this government intends to be viewed as radically different to past Conservative governments. But such a structural reform will require more than punchy soundbites and vague notions of transformative investment. This government will have to work with – and not against – the private sector on issues such as investment, the green belt and local authorities if it hopes to provide tangible benefits to the planning sector.