UK: Election Round-Up: Thinking Ahead For Changes In Planning

Summary and implications

With the general election just around the corner, change within the realm of planning and infrastructure seems inevitable.

All three of the major parties in England have similar objectives:

  • plugging the housing gap;
  • a shift towards brownfield redevelopment and increased protection of the green belt; and
  • increased investment in infrastructure.  

In this briefing, we round up some of the key policies that Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have put forward in the run-up to the election and how these might impact on the planning and infrastructure landscape over the course of the next term.  

Labour

The Labour Party has pledged an ambitious (but necessary) 200,000 homes a year by 2020, prioritising affordable housing and housing for first-time buyers, as well as building a new generation of garden cities.

They are also instigating a crack-down on "land banking", by introducing new "use it or lose it" powers to encourage developers to build, rather than sit on undeveloped land, waiting for it to accumulate in value.

Similarly, Labour intends to give local authorities the power to reduce the number of empty homes by introducing higher rates of council tax on properties that remain empty for long periods of time.

In terms of infrastructure, a National Infrastructure Commission would be set up to assess how best to meet the UK's infrastructure needs, prioritising investment in flood prevention, expanding transport networks in the North, and continuing support for HS2.  

Local authorities look set to benefit from a Labour government, since Labour has pledged to transfer £30bn of funding to local authorities under the English Devolution Act to give them greater autonomy in the housing, transport and economic development process. Other policies include tighter planning controls to prevent clustering of certain types of businesses on high streets (for example, payday lenders), and community-led review of betting shop licences. 

Conservatives

The Conservatives have matched Labour's 200,000 homes a year, but have introduced the further requirement that they are sold 20 per cent below market price for first-time buyers under 40 years old.

The Conservatives also focus on garden cities and protection of the green belt and shifting the focus of development to brownfield land. A £1bn brownfield fund will be created to unlock space to ease the housing deficit, supported by a requirement that local authorities must ensure that 90 per cent of suitable brownfield sites have planning permission by 2020.

Devolution of power to the local level has also been heralded by the Conservatives, who have pledged to cut £10bn of red tape by 2017–18 through the "Red Tape Challenge" and the "One in Two Out" rule. Under a Conservative government, communities would be given more control over planning decisions, including the right for local people to have the final say on wind farm applications.

The Conservatives have pledged to invest £100bn in infrastructure over the next Parliament, including a £50bn commitment to HS2 and the development of HS3, as well as pushing forward with plans for Crossrail 2.

Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats have pledged the highest number of homes – 300,000 a year – and 10 new garden cities in the areas where the housing deficit is greatest. A raft of controls will be introduced to facilitate these changes, including reviewed compulsory purchase legislation, pilot techniques to capture the increase in land values from the granting of planning permission, and strengthening the duty to co-operate for local authorities.

They have also promised to focus development on brownfield and town centre sites and to end the permitted development rights for converting office space to residential use.

As well as proceeding with HS2, an East–West rail link between Oxford and Cambridge has been proposed, in addition to a high-speed rail network in Scotland and changing planning law so that all new developments have good freight access.

Commentary  

As was the case after the last election, we may initially be facing a period of uncertainty while the new leader(s) find their feet. A large degree of legislation will be required to implement some of the changes that are being proposed. The HS2 Hybrid Bill process is still some way off being enacted, even if the funding for the project can be found (and justified). The enactment of the Infrastructure Bill earlier this year has laid some of the groundwork for the next Parliament, but vast swaths of policy and legislation will still need to be pushed through before some of the large-scale changes can be implemented.

Housing policies have formed the centrepiece of the manifestos, with all of the parties realising that dealing with the housing crisis in a timely manner is critical. The numbers proposed, however, seem somewhat ambitious. There is not only a funding gap behind these proposals, but also a question of where the houses will be built. Marrying up the political promise to protect the green belt and simultaneously building upwards of 200,000 homes a year seems like a potentially insurmountable challenge. It remains to be seen whether the brownfield land-use policies of the parties will have any effect in alleviating this pressure. It is true that there is a significant amount of brownfield land available, but the decision to force planning permission on this land is questionable. In many cases, the land has not been previously allocated for development for good reasons. Careful consideration needs to be given to the suitability of this land, otherwise all of the first-time buyers who will inevitably be purchasing these new homes may find themselves facing the consequences of thoughtless strategic planning.

The devolution of power to local authorities is seen by some as the most positive pledge. It is, however, crucial that this benefit is not completely counteracted by the increased involvement by local communities in the decision-making process, which may lead to increased complexities or delays in securing planning permissions.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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