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Caught between a tower block and a green space – the party politics of planning

14.02.24 | Written by James Goldstone

The London Plan review had been sitting on Michael Gove’s desk for four weeks but its publication was scheduled to coincide with a letter from the Prime Minister published in yesterday’s Times. This must have frustrated Gove, who just before Christmas wrote to the Mayor appearing to threaten a raft of interventions to get London building. Instead Gove is now consulting on a nationwide reform on the presumption in favour of brownfield development in local authorities falling below 95% of their Housing Delivery Test – and there are many.

Gove is known to genuinely want to get Britain building and in his Sunday morning TV appearances he reiterated a government goal of 300,000 new homes per annum albeit in the ‘right places’. But in a general election year, he knows that simple messages work best; admonishing the Mayor of the country’s most developed city for not delivering enough development could leave the large NIMBY vote scratching their heads, and Liberal Democrats would be quick to exacerbate the confusion in marginal constituencies.

Avoiding all reform of planning to get Britain building is not an option either. Housing concerns have rapidly climbed voters’ priorities, especially for those under 40. The Government needs to have a simple message for how they will address our housing crisis without scaring off their own base of rural homeowners in the South.

The recent announcements add up to a fudge and consequently the tortured political message that Labour isn’t building homes enough in London and this means that, if elected, Labour will need to build more homes in the shires. So the government will ‘turbocharge’ housebuilding to prevent Labour ‘tarmacking over the green belt’.

This is the balance the Conservatives are striking today, but all could change.

The calculation is fairly straightforward. If Labour remains 20 points ahead in the polls as we approach the general election, the Conservatives will tilt more towards their anti-development base in an effort to maintain at least over 150 seats. If Labour allow the gap to close then the Conservatives should consider how the 300,000 a year target can actually be reached – and putting them all in Labour cities on brownfield land will not suffice.

Conversely, if the polls close Labour will need to strike their own balance on housing delivery; enough to energise their younger supporters without scaring off the older homeowners they’ve worked so hard to woo. But a strong Labour lead plus the Conservatives embracing anti-development rhetoric will allow Keir Starmer to present housing delivery as a key dividing line between the parties and allow his incoming Government a greater mandate to genuinely get Britain building.

I’ll be advising clients in 2024 to pay attention more to the polls than the policy, as they will increasingly give the best indicator of what housing delivery is likely to look like over the next decade. A tightening should be expected, a widening should be hoped for.

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