Planning reform in the 2024 election manifestos

6 minute read
01 July 2024

Planning – a political priority?

It would be fair to say that planning reform has not featured big in the election campaigns of the major parties to date. As campaigning enters its final days, planning reform is not a subject likely to capture the imagination of the electorate. But the planning system is intrinsic to delivery of priorities that are at the top of the political agenda – housing, public infrastructure, economic growth, protection of the natural environment – so this belies the importance of the issue.

While it may not be the fodder of campaign soundbites, planning reform does feature in each of the main parties' manifestos. Below we take a whistle-stop tour of what each is promising, looking for consensus and substance behind the buzzwords.



Promises and buzzwords

The Conservative Party promises to "simplify", "streamline" and "speed up" the planning system; the outcome being delivery of 1.6 million new homes, "fast track" permissions for the building of infrastructure on farms, the development of "urban brownfield" sites, and making it easier to build prisons in "appropriate places". All of this while reforming "outdated EU red tape" in the planning sphere (including abolition of the nutrient neutrality rules) to "better protect" the environment.

The Labour Party promises planning reform to deliver 1.5 million homes. With the planning regime acting as a "major brake" on economic growth, the Labour Party states it will "slash red tape", "update" national planning policy, and "reform" and "strengthen" the presumption in favour of sustainable development. A new generation of "new towns", a "brownfield first" approach, preservation of the "greenbelt", and release of the "grey belt" is promised, with the introduction "golden rules" to ensure that development "benefits communities and nature".

The Liberal Democrats are going to "make planning work" for our natural environment, "properly funding" local planning departments to "improve planning outcomes", encourage the use of "rural exception" and "brownfield" sites and build ten new "garden cities". They will "integrate" infrastructure and public service delivery into a planning process steeped in "meaningful public engagement" while delivering 1.9 million new homes. They promise "use it or lose it" planning permissions for developers who refuse to build, and an expansion of "Neighbourhood Planning and Community Land Auctions" to ensure that communities receive a "fair share" of the "benefits" of new development.

Reform UK has issued a "Contract with You" rather than a manifesto. It promises planning "reform" with "fast-track" new housing and infrastructure on "brownfield sites". "Loose fit" planning policy for large residential developments is for Reform UK a critical reform needed in the first 100 days of the new parliament, as is the scrapping of what remains of HS2, which Reform UK dubs a "bloated vanity project".

The Green Party is not promising to reform the planning system: they are going to "transform" it. This transformation will "reduce the environmental impact" of new construction. Local authorities will be required to "spread new developments" across their areas, and the "green belt" will be "protected" while ensuring everybody has "easy access to a green space". Like the other parties, the Greens acknowledge that more new homes are needed, and they promise to deliver them under a "Right Homes, Right Place, Right Price Charter". Local authorities should, according to the Green Party manifesto, be given the resources to act as "guardians of the land", able to exercise a "place-making" and "place-shaping" role.

Snap or spot the difference?

The buzzwords differ but there is a degree of consensus. All of the parties recognise that changes are needed to the planning system if housing and infrastructure needs are to be met. Environmental concerns loom large, and sustainable development focused on "brownfield" / "grey belt" / "rural exception" (pick your buzzword!) sites are presented as palatable development options. While the NIMBY may now be an acronym from another era, the tension between local control and national imperatives is clear, and a cynic could view the proliferation of buzzwords and lack of accompanying detail as an attempt square the circle between national needs and local priorities. Addressing the housing crisis or building green energy infrastructure may be a vote winner, but would any of the electorate favour development in their own backyards?

There are some differences in approach. Labour and the Liberal Democrats promote "new towns" / "garden cities" (is there a difference?), while the Green Party favours smaller developments. Reform UK's "loose fit" planning policy has no clear equivalent in the other party offers. The Liberal Democrats propose a new use class for short term lets to address the shortage of rental properties, and various different stances are taken by the parties on the future of Right to Buy.

Outcomes

On 5th July, when the votes have been counted, we will know whether the new government is intent on "reforming", "integrating", "streamlining", "transforming", or "updating" the planning system and whether the planners are on the "fast track" or following "golden rules". Will we have any clearer idea of what it all means in practice? The promotion and regulation of development is a complex commercial and legal web, with jostling priorities at the local and national level and from the public and private sectors. Traversing this web will be a political balancing act for whoever takes the keys of No. 10 next Friday. It could be some time before we see the policy substance that sits behind the buzzwords.

To discuss any of the points raised in this article, or to speak to a member of our Planning team, contact Rachel Martin or Sarah Millington.


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