Labour’s planning reforms – easier on paper?

There’s no doubt that Labour has taken control of the housing agenda in the last year, with encouraging and strong rhetoric coming from the top of the party, made clear by Sir Keir Starmer declaring himself a “YIMBY”, the first major party leader to do so. The party has also selected a large crop of young candidates, many of whom have experienced the perils of private renting, and have embraced the mantra of ‘back the builders, not the blockers.’ However, what will this mean in reality when Labour forms the next government, when it comes up against opposition from vested interests and indeed its own MPs and members?  

Last week, Matthew Pennycook, Shadow Minister for Housing and Planning stated that it wouldn’t be the job of Whitehall to release swathes of the greenbelt, and this would ultimately lie with local authorities to do so, in a strategic, not piecemeal fashion. Labour has spoken repeatedly about freeing up so called ‘greybelt land’ for housing. Fellow north Londoners will know the infamous case of a petrol station, close to Tottenham Hale Station, which has escaped development by being designated greenbelt, much to the frustration of politicians and the YIMBY community. In reality, greybelt will be difficult to define, and you can envisage a scenario in which it will be debated extensively at future committees and appeal hearings.  

Moreover, Telegraph analysis of data from the Campaign to Protect Rural England found that around 30 Labour incumbents (including the likes of Ed Miliband and Lisa Nandy) represent constituencies where half or more of land is classified as greenbelt. It remains to be seen how newly elected MPs in such constituencies will interact with the local plan review process or individual planning applications, with many wanting to champion their new communities in parliament and make a name for themselves from day one. 

Despite positive noises from the party hierarchy, there have been notable examples of Labour MPs amplifying the voices of objectors in both marginal and safe seats. This has included Helen Hayes (Dulwich and West Norwood) objecting to a 100% affordable housing scheme proposed by housing association, Metropolitan Thames Valley Housing, which was eventually passed by Lambeth Council’s Planning Applications Committee. Similarly, Marsha de Cordova (Battersea) has recently waded in on controversial proposals for a riverfront residential tower in Battersea, sparking the ire of pro-housing campaigners. These examples serve to demonstrate a wider pattern that has emerged in planning, in which some Labour MPs have started to resist densification in the suburbs. This could present a challenge if Labour get into government, where they are proposing building in places (particularly where demand for housing is high e.g. the South East), where new MPs will be under pressure to oppose them. Matt Rodda’s recent intervention regarding proposals for a major town centre site regeneration in Reading may signal what is to come.  

Unlike when Labour last came into office, they will not be inheriting a rosy economic picture and the party has said they will not turn the spending taps on, should they form the next government. With the governing party historically being punished at the ballot box at local elections during the course of a parliament, we could see similar developments, in which MPs oppose controversial planning applications, which could be seen as vote losers, especially in knife edge boroughs (Croydon, Wandsworth and Westminster). We could also see a similar picture in boroughs where the opposition to Labour is growing, Lambeth, Merton and Southwark as examples.  

Planning reform has formed a key plank of Labour’s manifesto and is seen as essential to addressing the systemic issues Britain faces, including sluggish economic growth and creaking infrastructure. The question is will Labour MPs dare defy the leadership when it comes to planning reform?