The State Opening took place on 19 December 2019 and the Queen's Speech outlined the government's proposed policies and legislation for the coming session. The House returns after Christmas recess on 7 January 2020. While the Prime Minister's priority will be to 'get Brexit done', this briefing looks at what we may expect in other policy areas including housebuilding, planning and infrastructure.
The Conservative manifesto (Manifesto) set, not a commitment, but a "target of 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s". It stated that this would see a conservative administration "build at least a million more homes, of all tenures, over the next Parliament – in the areas that really need them." That is an average of 200,000 homes per annum and the Queen's Speech Background paper (Background paper) contains the same number. The latest MHCLG stats show annual housing supply in England amounted to 241,130 net additional homes in 2018-19. The numbers suggest maintenance of the status quo, rather than anything new to tackle the housing crisis therefore.
Up front infrastructure provision
The Manifesto indicated that the planning rules would be reformed to ensure that there is more infrastructure in place before new homes are occupied. The Queen's Speech confirms that there will be a £10bn investment into a new "Single Housing Infrastructure Fund" to help deliver the roads, schools and GP surgeries needed to support new homes.
The Queen's Speech has promised a consultation on 'First Homes'; homes available at a discount for key workers and local first-time buyers. The Background paper provides a bit more information on this stating that these 'First Homes' would be, "homes for local people and key workers at a discount of at least 30 per cent". It is suggested that the discount would be secured by a covenant to ensure the discount continues to apply in perpetuity.
The Manifesto also stated that a conservative administration would encourage a new market in "long-term fixed-rate mortgages which slash the cost of deposits" for first time buyers, which sounds a little like a rebrand of the Starter Homes initiative.
'Environmentally friendly' and 'fit for the future'?
While the Background paper also confirmed two new expected bills; a Building safety bill and a Fire safety bill, the Manifesto contained a number of further pledges which have not obviously made their way into the legislative and policy programme as set out in the Queen's Speech and expanded on in the Background paper.
The Manifesto also contained a pledge to "protect and enhance the Green Belt" and to continue to prioritise brownfield development. It proposed that communities would be asked to "decide [their] own design standards for new development". It stated that the Government would support modern methods of construction and encourage innovative design and technology including to make housing suitable for an aging population and the disabled.
The Manifesto promised to encourage the creation of "environmentally friendly homes" which it was stated would be "new kinds of homes that have low energy bills and which support our environmental targets" and an expectation for "all new streets to be tree lined".
The DCLG written statement on the 'Work of the next department' which was delivered, before the election, to the HC on 5 November 2019 (5 November Statement) also referred to the future homes standard consultation from October 2019, setting out proposals to "ensure that every new home built from 2025 will have low or zero-carbon emissions and the highest level of energy efficiency."
The Manifesto pledged an investment of £9.2bn for the energy efficiency of homes, schools and hospitals. The proportion of this that would be allocated to housing was not given.
It is possible though that further detail in relation to these Manifesto promises will emerge with the first Budget that is currently scheduled to take place in February 2020.
Right to Buy and Help to Buy
The Manifesto maintained the commitment to both policies of Right to Buy and Help to Buy. As well as maintaining its Right to Buy policy the conservative Manifesto promised to "evaluate new pilot areas". The Background paper states that the Government will also "renew the Affordable Homes Programme" and that it will introduce a, "simpler" "reformed Shared Ownership model" to make achieving full ownership easier.
'A better deal for renters'
The Background paper confirms that the government propose to introduce a 'Renter's Reform Bill' (England only) to make provision for a fairer rental market.
The main elements of the bill are the abolition of the use of 'no fault' evictions, giving landlords more rights to gain possession where there is a legitimate need for them to do so, introducing a new lifetime deposit, and expansion of the database of 'rogue landlords'.
The Background paper also states that the Government plan to end the sale of new leasehold properties and that it will "get rid of unnecessary ground rents on new leases and give new rights to homeowners to challenge unfair charges".
A "Social Housing White Paper" will be published to set out further measures to empower tenants and measures to support the continued supply of social homes. It will include "measures to provide greater redress, better regulation and improve the quality of social housing".
It is to be expected perhaps that the White Paper will build on the social housing green paper which was published under the previous government in August 2018 and which set out ambitions for a "new, fairer deal for social housing residents, including making it easier for residents to progress to home ownership."
A 'White Paper' is to be published setting out what reforms are to be made to the planning system to ensure the process is clearer, more accessible and more certain for all users, including homeowners and small businesses. The Government also intends to address resourcing and performance in local authority planning departments.
Currently, it is not known what may be covered by the Planning White Paper, but it is perhaps reasonable to assume that the new policy agenda will build on the previous administration's agenda. Some further clues to what the White Paper may cover are contained in the DCLG statement on the 'Work of the next department' which was delivered, before the election, to the House of Commons on 5 November 2019 (5 November Statement).
The 5 November Statement refers to an "accelerated" planning White Paper to speed up the planning system, including the potential for fees to be refunded if councils take too long to decide on specific planning applications. That appears to be a reference to potential new approaches to meeting the costs of the planning service where this improves performance. It is perhaps to be expected that it will also consider how greater capacity and capability within local planning authorities ( LPAs), stronger plan-making, better performance management and better procedural improvements could accelerate the planning process for all.
The 5 November Statement included that the "first-ever Government-backed national model design code will be published in the new year  and will set out a clear model for promoting a better design and style of homes across the country, shaped by what people want."
The previous government said it would increase building rates by incentivising new development of a design and style the public support. The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission 's interim report was published on 9 July 2019 and the final report remains unpublished. The 5 November Statement may then be a pointer to the Commission's final report. The Manifesto suggested that the Government would give communities a greater say on the style and design of development in their area and "(…) local councils encouraged to build more beautiful architecture." The Planning White Paper may contain something further on this.
The Planning White Paper may also pick up on some the measures which were announced back on 13 March as part of the 2019 Spring Statement. This included the a promise to publish additional new planning guidance to support housing diversification on large sites in response to the Letwin Review which recommended that greater differentiation in the types and tenures of housing delivered on large sites would increase build out-rates.
The 2019 Spring Statement also included a promise of a package of reforms in response to the Consultation on planning reform: supporting the high street and increasing the delivery of new homes . The previous government's response to the consultation was published in May 2019 and promised new and amended permitted development rights and changes to use classes, including to support the regeneration of the high street and to extend existing buildings upwards to create new homes. The Manifesto promised 'A new deal for towns' and a £150m "Community Ownership Fund to encourage local takeovers of civic organisations or community assets that are under threat". Again the White Paper and the February Budget may contain further clarifications and announcements.
The Background paper promised a White Paper to set out the Government's strategy "to unleash the potential of our regions, which will include plans for spending and local growth funding." It is stated that it will provide further information on government plans for full devolution across England, levelling up powers between Mayoral Combined Authorities, increasing the number of mayors and doing more devolution deals. It is also confirmed that the Government remain committed to the Northern Powerhouse, Midlands Engine, and Western Gateway strategies.
The Background paper also confirms that the Government will again pick up and bring forward changes to business rates, which it recognises are a source of local authority income. While further details of a fundamental review are to be announced, the Background paper states that the Government is committed to increasing the retail discount from one-third to 50 per cent, extending that discount to cinemas and music venues, extending the duration of the local newspapers discount, and introducing an additional discount for pubs. It also intends to progress legislation to bring forward the next business rates revaluation by one year from 2022 to 2021 and move business rates revaluations from a five-yearly cycle to a three-yearly cycle to make the system more responsive to changing economic conditions.
A National Infrastructure Strategy
The Background paper confirms that the National Infrastructure Strategy ( NIS) will be published alongside the first Budget in February 2020. It will provide the Government’s formal response to the National Infrastructure Commission's (NIC) National Infrastructure Assessment 2018 (NIA).
The NIS will have two key aims, firstly, to set out further details of the Government's plan to invest £100bn to transform the UK's infrastructure across all areas of economic infrastructure including transport, local growth, decarbonisation, digital infrastructure, infrastructure finance and delivery. Secondly, to address the challenges posed by climate change and to build on the UK's commitment to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
The Background paper includes a number of further infrastructure related policy and legislative commitments further detailed below.
Legislation will be brought forward to create a cheaper and faster light-touch tribunal process for telecoms companies to obtain interim code rights (or access rights) for a period of up to 18 months. The stated aim is to allow companies to install broadband connections where the landlord has failed to respond to repeated requests for access.
Existing legislation will also be amended so that all new build homes are required to have the infrastructure to support gigabit-capable connections and to require developers to work with broadband companies to install gigabit capable connections in virtually all new build homes, up to a cost cap.
The Bill's provisions will extend and apply to the whole of the UK, with the exception of legislative
proposals relating to housing.
The Conservative Manifesto indicated that the new third runway at Heathrow is still supported provided it can demonstrate that it can meet all the conditions on noise, air quality and carbon reductions as required in the Airports National Policy Statement (NPS), that the project can be financed and built and that the business case is realistic. The Manifesto stated that the scheme would receive no new public money.
The Background paper confirms that an 'Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill' will be brought forward to create new government powers to direct an airport or other relevant body to prepare and submit a proposal to the CAA to modernise their airspace, enabling more efficient, quieter and greener flights.
Also, the licensing framework for air traffic control would be modernised and the police given new powers to tackle the unlawful use of unmanned aircraft. The Bill's provisions would extend and apply to the whole of the UK.
Rail reform and the High Speed Rail 2 (West Midlands - Crewe) Bill
The Manifesto cast some doubt on whether the new government would continue to promote HS2 by stating that it was considering whether to continue to support the new rail link following the outcome of the independent review into costs and timings. However, the Background paper confirms that, without prejudice to the Oakervee Review’s findings and any Government decisions that follow, it is expected that the Bill will be revived and would begin its next stages in the House of Lords.
The Government will publish a White Paper in 2020. It intends to "end the complicated franchising model to create a simpler, more effective system". It has also committed to a number of major investments in the railway, including the Midlands Rail Hub, Northern Powerhouse Rail, reopening a number of the lines and stations closed under the Beeching cuts in the 1960s, and significant upgrades to urban commuter and regional services outside London.
A UK space strategy
The Background paper states that the Government will prioritise investment in industries of the future including life sciences, clean energy, space, design, computing, robotics and AI. It intends to drive forward development of these technologies by investing in hubs around world-leading universities and by "unlock[ing] long-term capital in pension funds to invest in and commercialise scientific discoveries".
A new cabinet level National Space Council will be set up to deliver a new UK Space Strategy. The Strategy will boost future funding and lead to a dedicated innovation programme to support future space exploration and exploitation of technology developments by funding cutting-edge British innovation in AI, robotics and satellites.
The Government has also announced that the UK will accelerate efforts to realise nuclear fusion energy through investment in a new UK fusion reactor design programme, known as STEP, which aims to deliver the world’s first commercially viable fusion power plant by 2040.
The Background paper confirms that the Government intends to prioritise the environment in its first Budget currently scheduled for February 2020. It intends to invest in carbon capture, offshore wind, nuclear energy, and electric vehicle infrastructure so that individuals are always within 30 miles of a charge point.
The Manifesto included it and the Background paper confirmed that the Government will reintroduce the Environment Bill that will create the governance framework for post Brexit. Further elements of the bill include:
- A new Office for Environmental Protection.
- Improving air quality by setting an ambitious legally-binding target to reduce fine particulate matter (PM2.5), and by increasing local powers to address sources of air pollution.
- Mandating 'biodiversity net gain' into the planning system by making biodiversity net gain a condition of the grant of planning permission in England.
- Introducing charges for specified single use plastic items.
- Managing water sustainably through more effective legislation to secure long term, resilient water and wastewater services.
- Ban the export of plastic waste to non-OECD countries.
Most of the Bill's provisions will extend and apply to England, with a small number of provisions extending to Northern Ireland only. Over half of the Bill’s provisions would extend and apply to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Additional policy proposals confirmed in the Background paper include:
- A new £500 million Blue Planet Fund to help protect our oceans from plastic pollution, warming sea temperatures and overfishing.
- Leading diplomatic efforts to protect 30 per cent of the world’s oceans by 2030.
- Not to compromise high environmental protection in trade negotiations.
- Invest £4bn in flood defences.
- Increase the ambition on offshore wind to 40GW by 2030, and enable new floating turbines.
- Support decarbonisation of industry and power by investing:
- £800m to build the first fully deployed CCS cluster by the mid-2020s, and
- £500 million to help energy-intensive industries move to low-carbon techniques.
To sum up
To start the new decade we may expect, in summary, 'White Papers', covering social housing, planning, English devolution and rail reform, as well as consultation on 'First Homes' and a review of business rates. In addition we may expect the publication of the National Infrastructure Strategy (NS), a new UK Space Strategy and perhaps a national model design code.
White papers are often published as Command papers and may include a draft version of the bill that is proposed as the basis for further consultation and so that final changes may be made before a bill is formally presented to Parliament. The proposals contained in White papers are usually already advanced and have usually already undergone some consultation. This means that means that the proposals contained in White papers are usually that much closer to implementation and with a shorter timescale to implementation.
Brexit aside then it looks like there are plenty of new developments in the pipeline for early 2020! Given the size of the Government majority we may also expect that there is a very good chance that the Government will deliver on what it has set out.