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Election 2017 - Manifesto Week: Conservatives on Planning

The Conservatives have been in government for the last two years. During that time they have introduced two major pieces of planning legislation; published a white paper aimed at tackling the housing crisis; and issued what, at times, feels like a never ending stream of consultations on any number of suggested tweaks or improvements  to the planning system.  

Against that background, my hopes that the Conservative Manifesto might be somewhat planning-light were probably rather naïve. At the very least, they were wrong. As it turns out, the Conservatives have rather a lot to say about planning and development; particularly, but not exclusively, in the context of housing.

In an attempt to keep things focused, I have divided the policies up into three main topics: Energy & Infrastructure; Environmental Improvements; and the ever popular theme of Tackling the Housing Crisis.

Energy & Infrastructure

The Conservatives are clearly committed to exploiting shale gas within the UK, as they are proposing large-scale reforms to the planning system to facilitate development of the industry.  In particular, they are proposing to:

  •  introduce permitted development rights for shale gas drilling processes that do not include fracking 
  • establish 'expert planning functions' to support local councils; and
  • allow major shale planning applications to be decided under the fast-track process for major infrastructure schemes; and
  • create a new single regulator for the shale industry, to take over the relevant functions of the Health and Safety Executive, Environment Agency and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

They are also committed to energy from wind, provided it is in the right location; namely either off-shore or in Scotland.  The intention being to 

"maintain our position as a global leader in offshore wind and support the development of wind projects in the remote islands of Scotland, where they will directly benefit local communities". 

It looks as if the current policy of objecting to on-shore wind farms will continue, however, as this is not considered to be 'right for England'.

Investment in transportation is also a major theme, with firm commitments being made to:

  •  High Speed 2
  • Northern Powerhouse Rail
  • the expansion of Heathrow Airport
  • investment in roads and motorways (including smart lanes and other technological improvements)
  • creating extra capacity on the railways by opening new lines or increasing services; and
  • expanding the UK's network of cycle paths.

New capital investment and development programmes are also proposed in the education and healthcare sectors, with pledges to:

  •  build at least a hundred new free schools a year; and
  • build and upgrade new primary care facilities, mental health clinics and hospitals throughout England.

Finally, we are promised a new 'digital land agency' which is to be created by combining parts of HM Land Registry, Ordnance Survey, the Valuation Office Agency, the Hydrographic Office and the Geological Survey into a single super agency.  The intention being to create "the largest repository of open land data in the world. This new body will set the standards to digitise the planning process and help create the most comprehensive digital map of Britain to date". 

Environmental Improvements

Although this iteration of the Conservative Manifesto appears decidedly less enthusiastic about the 'green agenda' than its predecessor, it still contains a number of policies aimed at calming fears about the impact of Brexit on the environment. 

Pledges are made to :

  • deliver improvements in natural flood management and the quality of watercourses;
  • continue with the current flood defence programme;
  • provide stronger protections for ancient woodlands;
  • plant an additional 1 million trees in UK towns and cities;
  • require councils to consult before cutting down trees in public streets;
  • tackle air pollution; and
  • produce a comprehensive 25 Year Environment Plan to chart how the Government will improve the environment during and after Brexit.

This is in addition to the pledge to transpose all current EU environmental protections into UK Law as part of the Great Repeal Bill (although no indications have been given about whether or not they will remain law after the transposition has been completed).

Tackling the Housing Crisis

As I mentioned earlier in this post, the  Conservative Manifesto has an awful lot to say about building new homes. Unravelling it is going to take a while and I am rather hoping that you will bear with me whilst I attempt to unpick it:

  1. The Conservatives have restated their 2015 manifesto commitment to deliver a million homes by the end of 2020, and pledged an additional half a million homes by the end of 2022. This is either very brave or rather foolish, as they are already woefully behind schedule....
  2. The reforms proposed in the Housing White Paper will be delivered, in order to 'free up more land for new homes in the right places, speed up build-out by encouraging modern methods of construction and give councils powers to intervene where developers do not act on their planning permissions'. This was pretty much a given. The Housing White Paper was only released in February, and was widely promoted at the time, so not delivering on the proposed reforms would have been almost unthinkable. 
  3.  Further measures are also promised to diversify the house-building industry.
  4. Support is pledged for 'high-quality, high-density housing" in an attempt to increase housing numbers. This support will be needed if they are to deliver on the promised 2020 target, as they very next pledge states that...
  5.  The Conservatives will maintain strong protection for designated land, such as the Green Belt, National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. 
  6.  There is a pledge to 'rebalance' housing growth across the country, in line with the industrial strategy, but no detail as to how this will be done. This is disappointing given the lack of cohesion  between the industrial strategy green paper and the Housing White paper that was noted when they were both published earlier this year. 
  7. There is a pledge to build 160,000 houses on publically owned land; and
  8. Further support is promised for specialist housing, such as multi-generational homes and housing for older people.
  9. New Council Housing Deals are promised to help local authorities build more social housing, which will be backed with low-cost capital funding schemes . 
  10.  There is also a promise to introduce a new form of social housing, which local authorities will only have to keep for a fixed period. After ten or fifteen years the properties can be sold on the open market (subject to the Right to Buy) with the proceeds being reinvested in new stock.
  11.  Further reforms are promised to Compulsory Purchase Orders, to make them more user friendly for local authorities; and finally
  12.  New mechanisms will be put in place 'to capture the increase in land value' created by development and reinvest it in local infrastructure. This particular pledge is likely to worry those of us who are holding out hope that the Government will eventually repeal the CIL Regulations. Instead, I fear that we are either in for reform of the existing system, or replacement with something surprisingly similar to what we already have. Given that the CIL Regulations as they stand are dysfunctional, that would be disappointing.

In short: the Conservatives do not appear to have any intention of slowing down their onslaught of changes, reforms and improvements to the planning system. These may or may not deliver the high numbers of new homes that have been promised, but it would certainly keep us all rather busy for the foreseeable future!

Forward Together: The Conservative Manifesto

The next five years are the most challenging that Britain has faced in my lifetime.
Brexit will define us: our place in the world, our economic security and our future prosperity.
So now more than ever, Britain needs a strong and stable government to get the best Brexit deal for our country and its people.
Now more than ever, Britain needs strong and stable leadership to make the most of the opportunities Brexit brings for hardworking families.
Now more than ever, Britain needs a clear plan.
This manifesto, Forward, Together: Our Plan for a Stronger Britain and a Prosperous Future will meet the great challenges of our time, beyond Brexit.
With this plan and with a strong hand through Brexit, we will build a stronger, fairer, more prosperous Britain, for all of us.