Following their landslide victory, feelings of pride and joy for the Labour government will quickly disappear when the new Prime Minister, Keir Starmer, and former Shadow Minister for Housing and Planning, Matthew Pennycook, glance uphill at the mountain of chaos that is the state of the housing industry and built environment. According to CentreforCities calculations, Britain has a backlog of 4.3 million homes in comparison to the average European country, requiring 645,000 dwellings to be built per year for the next decade to overcome.

Aware of the difficulties surrounding housebuilding, the Labour government have pledged to build 1.5 million homes in five years (equating to 300,000 homes per annum). To do so, the party has promised to make ‘full use’ of their intervention powers, and their pledges include:

  • Updating the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) to undo ‘damaging’ Tory changes;
  • Restoring mandatory housing targets, a plan that was previously subjected to a Tory backbench rebellion in 2022;
  • Strengthening the presumption in favour of sustainable development;
  • Introducing new Compulsory Purchase Order powers to be available to Local Councils, Homes England and newly created development corporations;
  • Adopting a ‘brownfield first approach’;
  • Implementing a ‘strategic approach’ to greenbelt land designations and prioritising the release of lower quality ‘grey belt’ land whilst introducing ‘golden rules’ to ensure development benefits communities and nature;
  • Increasing the level of social and affordable housing; and
  • Establishing new towns.

The new government’s reforms are set to massively impact planning at regional and local levels. The party’s manifesto set out to ‘reform and strengthen the presumption in favour of sustainable development’, putting more pressure on local planning authorities to have up-to-date local plans and demonstrate five-year housing land supplies. To add to this, Starmer & Co have warned of ‘tough action’ to ensure Local Plans are up to date, although it is unclear what this means in practice and what impact this will have on the existing backlog. Also, new devolved powers (anticipated under the ‘Take Back Control Act’) would see greater planning powers for combined authorities to make better use of grant funding. Combined and mayoral authorities will be required to strategically plan for housing growth in their areas, with the manifesto promising to introduce ‘effective new mechanisms for cross-boundary strategic planning.’

Since 2009, planning departments have lost over 25% of their staff which has had huge implications on the planning process, resulting in significant delays in the determination of planning applications, and ultimately the deliverability of housing and development. Labour has promised £25m in extra funding for the recruitment of 300 planning officers, with money gained from tax leveraged on foreign property buyers (stamp duty) set to fund it. However, will this go far enough to address the holes in the planning system? With 317 Local Authorities across England alone, this equates to less than one additional planning officer per Local Authority. Although budget cuts are a major factor in the decrease in planning officers, the ageing workforce going into retirement and lack of skilled officers is also a defining factor. In addition, no assurances on how these funds will be ring-fenced have been outlined. So, unless the new government bolsters its support of the planning system, it is unlikely to see significant changes in planning timeframes in the short to medium term.

In their 2019 manifesto, the Tories promised continued progress to build 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020’s by making the planning system ‘simpler’. However, in 2021-22 and 2022-23, net additional dwellings were just under 235,000 a year. Labour has also set themselves the challenge of supplying 300,000 a year (1.5 million total). But what will they do differently?

As with the Tories, Labour are committed to a ‘brownfield first approach’; however, unless further initiatives are formed, we are unlikely to see significant changes in brownfield delivery, and Labour have openly recognised that this measure will be insufficient to meet housing needs. As a result, the party has pledged to roll out an innovative approach to greenbelt land management, stating it will take a ‘strategic approach’ to greenbelt land designations and prioritise the release of lower quality ‘grey belt’ land, whilst introducing ‘golden rules’ to ensure development benefits communities and nature. Although a positive move, the Green Belt is likely to continue to be a barrier to development and the achievement of housing targets.

It is noticeable that the Labour housing building masterplan, specifically with the creation of new towns, is focused on developing land outside of major urban areas. This approach is in opposition to the Tories, who had planned to meet the shortfall exclusively in urban areas, planning to increase density levels in Inner London to ‘replicate cities like Paris or Barcelona’. Labour’s strategy should decrease dependence on housebuilding in inner cities, providing a refreshingly new tactic for supplying a large volume of homes- based on a model which has proven, previous state success. However, it is difficult not to have some scepticism when considering the, more recent, state failure of ‘ECO Towns’, proposed by Blair and Prescot, due groundswell of local opposition. Additionally, a promise of new towns is unlikely to provide the ultra-responsive, rapid solution to approving more small and medium size sites for the delivery of much-needed homes. Our view is that this will only be facilitated through greenfield site development in areas that have often been constrained through local political intervention and, of course, a more flexible approach to Green Belt release in the right locations. Unfortunately, both approaches are likely to be against the ‘community led’ aspirations set out in the manifesto – so not plain sailing for the new government.

If new towns are rolled out, like they were after the war, it could see residential development in the metropolitan areas be neglected, meaning the housing crisis may rage on. Thus, when planning new towns and regeneration sites, it is imperative that the government does not neglect the need for infrastructure (such as schools, hospitals and transport systems), to accompany housing, in order to create liveable and desirable neighbourhoods. When considering the financial and administrative requirements of the new government’s approach, there is no surprise that Labour have been relatively vague in stating what they aim to deliver.

The new government has also promised ‘the biggest increase in social and affordable housebuilding in a generation.’ To meet this goal, Labour have pledged to strengthen planning obligations to ensure developers provide more affordable homes and to support councils and housing associations to build their capacity and make a greater contribution to affordable housing supply, so perhaps we haven’t seen the end of S106 Agreements? The government will also change the failing Affordable Homes Programme to ensure that it delivers more homes from existing funding. Though a 40% affordable housing rate for new towns was pledged in the campaign, it was not reflected in the party’s manifesto – so it is uncertain whether this will be progressed.

Having anticipated government for over a year now, it is important that Labour hit the ground running to ‘get Britain building again’. Starmer’s battleplan against the housing crisis is ambitious, including fixing the planning system, initiating planning reform, identifying ‘new town’ and ‘grey belt’ land and making provision for affordable and social housing. Victory for the new government over this term could be crucial in redirecting the trajectory of the planning and housebuilding industries in the UK.

Authored by

Amine Djelladj, Assistant Planner