In 2021, industry, commentators and analysts agreed that the Conservative government were serious about solving the housing and planning crisis. Yet all it took was a by-election loss and opposition day debate causing disquiet among Conservative backbenchers for the Conservative government to throw in the towel.
They say a smart politician does not waste a crisis and during his party conference speech, Sir Keir Starmer showed that in campaign terms he does not fear leading when a government in crisis cowers from its convictions. Yet as we saw with the Conservatives, who went far beyond campaigning to lay serious planning reform to the nation, saying you want reform is different from delivering it in practice.
In truth, Starmer has already faced his first test on planning reform through the Government’s overdue nutrient neutrality pivot. Yet rather than realising he needed to support the Government but go further to hold them to account on timelines and insisting on emergency planning powers for water company investment, he played the culture war card to oppose the Government and consequently keep rivers dirty for longer.
Had he popped over to Labour run Wales he may have realised that the Conservative government is following Welsh Labour’s lead, as they too have decided that dealing with pollution is a better option than blaming builders and obsessing with offsetting.
Although Starmer is not able to run Welsh Labour, Wales should serve as a fantastic point of reference for Labour’s conviction to reforms. A UK Labour government would have to work with Wales, who have devolved planning powers, so you would think efforts to implement Labour’s grander vision would have already begun. Though if they have, there is not much to shout about.
The same can be said for the Mayor of London and many Labour councils in the capital, who have not densified their communities, continue to sustain uncertainty in the planning process and are delivering an underwhelming level of social housing.
Where Labour already governs, it feels more like they are backing away from builders than backing them.
However, the story is brighter the further north you go, with many Labour councils delivering up to 400% more homes than their minimum housing targets and showing a desperation to invest in levelling up through business enablement; though some are being hindered by capital project failures, HS2 being a great example.
In Manchester, Mayor Burnham and the city council are making efforts to work with all their natural resources, such as business and residents, with strategies including retrofitting and densification starting to take off and even looking sustainable.
This mixed bag of outcomes suggests Keir Starmer has not yet accepted the challenge to prove his party is ‘a government in waiting’. Despite a fantastic speech identifying barriers to growth, such as housing, the grid, energy, land use and emotive land protections, there was no promise to reform the current planning process but instead, tweak it after rolling back some policies the Conservatives view as political expedient.
Tweaking could work, though history teaches us that it is often done for political expediency rather than strategic reform led by conviction politicians. Therefore, to be taken seriously on their promises, Labour needs to show and tell the nation how the existing system will work for their ambitions, where tweaks are needed and how they will work.
With a general election around the corner, the Conservatives have given Labour a unique opportunity to prove they are ready to govern. The signs are there that they understand what needs to be done but as a nation, we have been here before. Here is hoping that Labour takes the chance to lead where the Conservatives have decided not to, rather than succumb to the lure of performance for self-preservation’s sake.
Rico Wojtulewicz, Head of Housing and Planning Policy at the HBA and NFB