The vast majority of policy brains and economists agree on one thing: Britain’s archaic planning system is a drag on economic growth. But are the Conservatives able to do anything about it? In the past three months alone, the party has had to make several U-turns on its plans to reform the system – culminating in Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove agreeing to do away with compulsory housebuilding targets for local areas.
At a Spectator panel event at this year’s Conservative party conference, which was held in partnership with the Earls Court Development Company (ECDC), we spoke with industry experts about the planning reforms needed and how the Tories can go about implementing them.
One panellist argued that planning has become the Conservatives’ sacred cow. But is such fatalism really justified? After all, the discussion was certainly coming at an opportune moment. At the time of the panel, Liz Truss was still in office – ready to take to the stage with a promise to double down on economic growth. Given her previous comments about planning reform, some were anticipating that a building boom might finally be on the agenda.
Indeed, then-housing minister Lee Rowley (who now serves as a local government minister under Rishi Sunak) insisted that the new administration was ready to prioritise housebuilding. The vast majority of Britons aspire to own property, he said – but levels of home ownership have fallen in recent years, particularly among the under-fifties. ‘It should be a Conservative mission to close that gap,’ he added.
The minister outlined three potential levers for any Conservative government. ‘First, we can improve housing supply. Second, we can remove some of the barriers to supply – like making it easier to get a mortgage. And third, we can ensure those ongoing costs are affordable,’ he said. As Rowley acknowledged, though, it was the first lever that had proved so difficult for recent Conservative governments.
It was a point that wasn’t lost on Rob Heasman, the ECDC’s chief executive. The development at Earl’s Court is one of London’s most ambitious residential regeneration projects: seeking to turn the former site of the Earls Court Exhibition Centre into a major new development encompassing world-class amenities and new high-quality homes.
However, the development has had its fair share of delays. Following the demolition of the Exhibition Centre by the previous owners, the site was left empty and became a barrier between local communities. Ongoing disputes over the appropriateness of the development and whether it delivered locally, as well as for London as a whole, meant that the situation dragged on.
Since acquiring the site in 2019, ECDC has worked to inject life back into the site, with a goal to build ambitiously and decisively and deliver for the Earl’s Court community – and Londoners on the whole.
Speaking on the topic, Heasman said: ‘It’s no secret that the planning process is very difficult and there is plenty of risk. Our focus has been on meaningful community engagement, looking to build trust and open up a genuine conversation about what the project should look like.’
But strenuous planning requirements – and the ever-present threat of a local veto – weren’t just causing a headache for developers. Muniya Barua from BusinessLDN (previously London First) explained how a lack of affordable housing in the capital was increasingly being cited as the top concern for the employers who formed the group’s membership.
‘Their interest is simple,’ she said. ‘The failure to build homes means their ability to retain and recruit talented staff is hampered.’ Not only was the housing shortage hampering productivity, but it was also damaging public services: essential workers were unable to afford accommodation in the capital. These were urgent issues that the Conservatives needed to grapple with.
For Barua, though, the constant promises to reform the planning system had brought a downside: the never-ending changes created uncertainty for developers and investors. ‘Let’s get good local plans in place and keep them there,’ she said. One priority, she suggested, should be building more retirement housing, which would encourage downsizing and free-up existing housing stock.
For urban policy expert Nicholas Boys Smith – the founding director of Create Streets – the key to improving Britain’s cities and towns (and, by extension, their economic outputs) was to unlock ‘beautiful, gentle density’ and to build upwards. ‘Our economy is very lopsided in terms of where people wish to live,’ he said. Taller buildings might be necessary in places like London, but that doesn’t mean they have to be ugly.
As for the planning system itself, it is certainly cumbersome – but its problems are often misunderstood by housing campaigners. The idea of regulating planning – or even having a restricted area like our green belt – is hardly unique,’ said Boys Smith. ‘Most countries have some form of urban containment policy, he added, even if Britain’s is rather emotively branded.
Instead, for Boys Smith, the real problem is that the planning system creates an inefficient barrier to entry in that it does not provide clarity on what can or cannot be built. ‘As a result, we have one of the most concentrated development markets in the world,’ he said. By contrast, smaller developers or existing owners are often locked out of the system, compounding the dominance of large housebuilders.
The Conservative opposition to planning reform has been well documented. Yet contributions from the floor – including from several Conservative members – suggested a more nuanced picture. Some even linked the party’s reluctance to build to its declining polling numbers. Given that the desire to own a home is a strongly conservative instinct, the party risks an even bigger electoral backlash if it fails to make that happen.
While Truss had made positive noises on the issue, her time in office would soon be cut short – with the prime minister offering her resignation within two weeks of the event. Her successor, on the other hand, has been forced to act due to separate factions forming in his party. Not only does this mean Sunak is paring back from the 2019 manifesto even further, it suggests planning is not a closed case for the Conservative party.