Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party Conference speech unveiled an ambitious vision to reshape Britain by tackling the obstacles within the current planning system and finally get Britain building houses again.
The headlines celebrated Labour’s commitment to economic growth and social impact through increased housing supply, and his speech has been welcomed by many in the industry. However, there are significant questions about the feasibility and effectiveness of the proposed measures.
The promise to “bulldoze through” barriers to new home construction sounds decisive, acknowledging the vital role housing plays in economic growth. The devil is in the detail, and doubts linger about the substance behind the bold claims. While Labour’s commitment to building a “next generation of Labour new towns” could be extremely positive, the UK does not have a good track record for building new towns (look at Ebbsfleet).
Similarly, the pledge to support first-time buyers is promising. Still, there’s a sobering reality – if supply doesn’t match demand, such schemes risk driving up prices, making homeownership even less attainable. Lenders at conference fringe events were already expressing concerns and many opposed the idea of any return of the help to buy scheme because of the way it skews the market.
YIMBY not NIMBY
The plan to devolve powers to regional mayors and enhance local voices in planning has the potential to streamline the process and move house building on at speed. However, Sir Keir’s acknowledgement on national radio that NIMBY sentiments might need to be ignored highlights the potential clash with local interests and opposition from councillors who may not see the developments as politically beneficial. The sound bites are strong, but it is hard to see how they will translate into practical steps. At one event I attended, a metro mayor spoke openly about how it was easier to push through planning at the beginning of their time in office but more challenging as they get closer to an election. Ultimately for elected officials, the reality is that support for streamlining the planning system may cost votes.
The ‘planning passport’ for brownfield development aims to cut through bureaucratic delays, and the concept of the “grey belt” attempts to repurpose not quite green, green belt spaces. Questions linger about how many sites are cut-and-dry ‘grey belt’ and are literally deserted car parks and disused wasteland. Many sites will be disputed, and the success of the policy will depend on how quickly decisions can be made. Translating this policy from a great macro policy to impactful strategy will not be easy. Labour will need to ensure green credentials are maintained and enhanced, especially when Starmer has made a point of criticising the Prime Minister for his green u-turn, so the ‘grey belt’ will not be without controversy. Striking a balance between urgent housing needs and environmental preservation is a complex task, and the success of this approach is uncertain.
Genuine desire to build
While there are questions, the prevailing mood that emerged from the fringe events is a collective push to overcome challenges and a plea for creative remedies to address the housing crisis. There is a broader understanding that tackling the housing crisis requires proactive measures, bold decisions, and a willingness to explore unconventional avenues. This was evident at every event I attended as well as meetings with Labour MPs and Prospective Parliamentary Candidates.
As Sir Keir Starmer’s vision unfolds, the challenges are substantial, but so is the determination to find effective solutions. The road ahead may be difficult, but the genuine desire to get things done suggests a collective readiness to face these challenges head-on and build more to meet the unquestionable housing need.