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Post-General Election 2017 – Implications for Planning and The Environment

Karen Jones

Partner Karen Jones, in our Planning and Environmental Law team, looks at key Conservative policies in respect of planning, infrastructure and the environment.

Rather than producing a “strong and stable” government, Theresa May’s surprise snap-election gamble has thrown her government, and British politics as a whole, into uncertainty. Having fallen short of the required 326 figure needed for an overall Commons majority, the Conservatives have enlisted the backing of the Democratic Unionist Party in order to form a minority government. The DUP will support Conservative legislation on a case-by-case basis, and will leave the government needing to rely more so on compromise within parliament, in order to pursue their proposed manifesto changes to the planning system. This has undoubtedly caused the planning community to wonder what this will mean for planning and housing reform measures.

In the run-up to the tumultuous election, Victoria Charlesson in our Planning & Environmental department reviewed, in her General Election 2017 Planning and Infrastructure Blog, the election manifestos for the Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrats, and Green parties to see what direction each party appeared to be taking in respect of planning, infrastructure and the environment. Now that the dust has settled, this article will now look at key Conservative policies from their manifesto and will set out to answer how likely they are to be pursued in light of the newly formed minority government.

Energy and Environment

Prior to the election, the Conservatives had committed to the development of the shale industry in Britain, and in particular, looked to legislate a change in planning law which would streamline applications, and also to establish a Shale Environmental Regulator which will, in effect, assume the relevant responsibilities of the Health and Safety Executive, the Environment Agency, and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Their manifesto set the ambitious goal for Britain to have the lowest energy prices in Europe.

The consensus across the planning community is that this policy may struggle to gain significant cross-party support, with the Labour, Green, and Liberal Democrat parties all having pledged to oppose fracking. Without a strong majority in the Commons, the Conservatives will now face persistent resistance to this controversial policy. 

One area that the parties do agree on, however, is the continued investment into renewable energy with the Conservatives affirming that they want to see a diverse range of sources for Britain’s energy production, including the support for off-shore wind projects in Scotland. This sentiment is mutual among Labour and the Liberal Democrats with both parties promising to achieve 60% zero-carbon or renewable sources by 2030. Whether this agreed commitment will come to fruition, however, is separate issue entirely and will require the Conservatives to have DUP support in order to push through energy proposals. Given Labour’s declaration that privatisation of the energy supply industry has failed to deliver, and that they would actively look to take it into public ownership, it is unclear how co-operative Labour will be.

Housing

One of the Conservative Party’s key commitments is to deliver a million new homes by the end of the decade, and a further half a million more by the end of 2022. This is a relatively uncontroversial policy which has seen a large amount of cross-party support, particularly from the Labour Party who have proposed the same investment in the housing market. The question raised by commentators is whether these figures are actually achievable. The swift implementation of the proposed planning reforms detailed in the Housing White Paper which aims to tackle the UK housing crisis will be a priority for the government. Measures laid out in the Housing White Paper look to free up land for new homes in the right places, encourage modern construction methods and to give local planning authorities wider powers to intervene where developers have not acted on their planning permission.

The election result, where former planning minister Gavin Barwell, a key advocate and contributor to the White Paper, lost his seat has caused some concern over whether this will lead to unplanned delays, particularly in the consultation for the intended standardised approach to assessing housing requirements. However, with Gavin Barwell, replaced by Alok Sharma, still Theresa May’s Chief of Staff, fears over potential delays may be alleviated. 

The Conservative manifesto also lends its support for high-density housing, including mansion blocks, mews houses and terrace blocks. With a clear recognition amongst all parties that there is a significant shortfall in housing, it is likely that support for such measures will gain traction and be pursued in order to tackle what the Housing White Paper declares is a “broken housing market” in the UK".

Infrastructure

Coined as their modern industrial strategy, the Conservatives will look to ensure that the UK’s infrastructure need is delivered over their parliamentary term, with a particular focus on road, rail and airport investment. A new National Productivity Investment Fund promises an additional £23 billion for such high value infrastructure investment.

This will include £1.1 billion being earmarked for investment into local transport improvements across the UK, and the newly formed government will continue their commitment to existing infrastructure projects including HS2, Heathrow’s third runway, Northern Powerhouse Rail (i.e. HS3) and the roads investment strategy. With Labour maintaining their support for the completion of HS2, recognition of a need for airport capacity (albeit without mentioning which specific airport) and road investment, there is some optimism in planning circles that these commitments will receive cross-party support, despite Labour’s vision of rail companies being brought back into public ownership.

Local Planning Authorities

The Conservatives propose to reform Compulsory Purchase Orders to make them clearer, faster and fairer for local authorities to use, with the aim of bringing forward more brownfield land, at below market value, for development. The reforms could represent a major departure from an existing CPO regime that has traditionally protected the rights of private landowners by ensuring those landowners receive a fair market value for their property. 

The Conservatives may now find it difficult to spearhead this potentially contentious and politically complex policy given their narrow majority in the Commons.

Verdict

While there is cross-party agreement on a number of issues that the new government will need to tackle, some of the proposed policies do not enjoy unanimous support. Indeed, the government will recognise that a greater degree of compromise and consensus will be required in order to pursue certain proposals. Commentators, however, remain hopeful and confident that planning policy could escape relatively unscathed on the issue of housebuilding with an acknowledgment, across all parties, of a shortfall in new homes being built.

For more information, please contact Karen Jones or a member of our Planning and Environmental Law team.

This blog article was produced with support from Chris Cameron.

This article is intended for the use of clients and other interested parties. The information contained in it is believed to be correct at the date of publication, but it is necessarily of a brief and general nature and should not be relied upon as a substitute for specific professional advice.