Although the next general election could be held as late as January 2025, it is widely expected that it will be called earlier. Current opinion polls suggest that Labour may be the next government in power but as we know from recent elections the polls don't always give the full picture.

Whilst the parties have of course not yet published their election manifestos there have been some noteworthy announcements related to planning policy from the Labour party, particularly around the time of its party conference which was held 8-11 October 2023. It is these Labour party announcements which we take a closer look at below.

The announcements focus on 'Get Britain building again'. Rachel Reeves, shadow chancellor, has described the current planning system as 'antiquated', stating that Labour's proposals would be 'a once in a generation set of reforms' that would help to 'accelerate the building of critical infrastructure for energy, transport and housing'.

What are the proposed planning reforms?

Labour Leader, Sir Keir Starmer, pledged to get Britain building again and save the dream of homeownership for younger people. He announced that under Labour there would be a transformational package of reforms to the planning system to build 1.5m homes, to buy and to rent, over the next Parliament, including 'first dibs' for first time buyers; supporting younger people to have the first chance at homes in new housing developments with a government-backed mortgage guarantee scheme.

A Labour government would work with local authorities to quickly draw up and agree local plans that have stalled. Labour would also strengthen requirements to approve new homes in areas that do not have an up-to-date plan and would intervene to approve new homes in poorly performing areas, including using call-in powers in the most extreme cases. Labour also indicated that it would look to enhance the local voice on ‘how’ housing is built, with communities confident plans will be delivered.

Affordable housing

Labour plans to rapidly reform the planning system, boosting the affordable housing market in the process. The party has proposed to deliver the 'biggest boost to affordable house building in a generation'. Deputy Leader, Angela Rayner, announced that this will be achieved by reforming section 106 agreements, and providing added flexibility in the Affordable Homes Programme. 

The Deputy Leader Angela Rayner said the party would strengthen rules on developers to stop them 'wriggling out of their responsibilities'. She indicated that Labour would give elected local leaders new powers to 'stand up to vested interests' in building new schemes with a specialist government ‘take back control’ unit. Elaborating, she said this new Unit would give advice to councils and housing associations on how to negotiate with developers to ensure affordable housing obligations including Section 106 agreements are met. Further, Labour would publish guidance that would, in effect, limit companies to challenging these requirements only if there were genuine barriers to building homes.

The Labour parties aspiration to provide 1.5m new homes is over a five-year period, was reported in the Guardian 08.10.2023. Sir Keir Starmer criticised the current government for seeking to introduce flexibility around its stated target. The Conservative 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. The latest statistics show annual housing supply in England amounted to 232,820 net additional dwellings in 2021-22. The next set of DLUHC statistics is due this month.

Sir Keir Starmer indicated that a Labour government would put the targets back up to get building happening. To achieve this, it is reported, Labour would have to challenge the planning laws and to work with developers to get there at speed. 

The next generation of ‘new towns’

Sir Keir Starmer pledged that Labour would ensure new homes are built through the creation of 'new towns' - new communities with beautiful homes, green spaces, reliable transport links and bustling high streets.

The proposed plan for development of housing could offer vast improvements for developers and buyers alike. However, the ability to deliver this in line with current green targets has been questioned (as reported 10.10.2023). The proposals for "an immediate blitz of planning reform, were not accompanied by assurances on, 'low carbon' or 'net zero', however the Labour party's mission statement on climate does promise to upgrade 19 million homes under the Warm Homes Plan.

Subsequently, it was reported that Labour shadow planning minister, Matthew Pennycock, spoke at a fringe event. On the issue of nutrient neutrality, he is reported to have said that environmental rules should not be sacrificed for the sake of new development. He reportedly went on to say that this is an area where policy certainty is absolutely essential. So far Labour has not indicated how it would unlock housing delivery in areas where nutrient neutrality is an issue.

Investing in people

Rachel Reeves announced that Labour would allow local authorities to hire 300 new planning officers, to help the party achieve its aim of “strengthening public-sector capacity to expedite planning decisions”.

Rachel Reeves said that “since 2012, decision times for national infrastructure have increased by 65 per cent, now taking four years"; “It is time we had a government that matched the ambition that people have for their families and communities. A government siding with the builders not the blockers. A government that will get Britain building again".

'Unleashing Mayors'

Labour has also promised to “unleash” Mayors, by way of a package of devolution to Mayors, with stronger powers to enable them to have more control over planning and housing investment.

‘Planning passport’ for urban brownfield development

The Labour party announced plans to introduce a ‘planning passport’ for urban brownfield development, which it also said would feature a "fast-track approval and delivery mechanism for high-density housing on urban brownfield sites". No more details were given on the proposed detail for this mechanism.

Mathew Pennycock is reported to have confirmed that the Labour party would maintain its 'brownfield first' position, but that Labour would be looking at a strategic planned green belt release also.

Keir Starmer pledged that a Labour government would permit the development of low-quality green belt such as “disused car parks” and “dreary wastelands”, which the party described as “grey belt”. Matthew Pennycook had earlier in the year said on X (formerly Twitter), that the Labour party would allow the development of “more low-quality, brownfield land within the green belt to meet local housing need”.

The current conservative government committed to publish a land use framework in 2023, and Kerry

McCarthy, the shadow climate minister, is reported to have indicated that the Labour party would use this framework “to look at where to put the housing but also look at the green belt."

The shadow environment minister, Steve Reed, confirmed the Labour party's commitment to biodiversity net gain (BNG) and promised to provide “certainty” over the policy following a delay to its implementation being announced.

Nationally significant infrastructure projects

Speaking at the party conference, Rachel Reeves promised an urgent review of all national policy statements and a “fast-track” planning route for “priority" infrastructure projects. The Labour party has said that it would update all national policy statements relevant to NSIPs within the first six months in government.

Rachel Reeves also outlined plans for a new National Wealth Fund (NWF) that would co-invest in projects that are seen as necessary to the energy transition and Britain’s industrial future, but which fall outside of energy production. Labour's five missions reveal that a new NWF would invest alongside the private sector in gigafactories, clean steel plants, renewable-ready ports, green hydrogen and energy storage.

Final thoughts

Some are predicting that the next general election may be called as early as Autumn 2024. The parties are likely to release further information on their manifestos in due course, but in the meantime further detail on the Labour party's five Missions can be found on their website.

The Labour party's economic mission, as set out during its party conference, includes a focus on unlocking housing supply, helping first-time buyers onto the housing ladder and building more affordable homes by reforming planning rules, and providing new protections for renters.

Labour is also supportive of a housing investment role for Mayors of Combined Authorities. This summer the party chose a former MP as its candidate for East Midlands mayor when the first elections are held in 2025. The East Midlands Combined Authority would be first combined authority of its kind, relying as it does on the new provisions in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2023.

Any new government looking for private developers to deliver, will be faced with the dilemma that high land costs and that reliance on private finance will put the focus on home ownership, or market rent models. While, supporting home ownership is important, the housing crisis will not be resolved by addressing only supply of new units, it will also need to address the low security and high costs in the Private Rented Sector, which will require some measure of regulation and/or government subsidy.

Housing surely has to be high up on the agenda of the government of the day, but we will need more detail to see if Labour's missions are any more deliverable than the Conservative party's targets. 

This article was authored by Hope Gallant, Trainee Solicitor at Womble Bond Dickinson.