Ten planning recommendations for the incoming Labour Government: Views from a practitioner

There is an opportunity for the incoming government to reshape planning policy and speed up housing delivery


Dan G Wilson BSc MSc MRTPI is a Chartered Town Planner, working within the built environment sector for the past ten years. In 2020, Dan was awarded Young Planner of the Year for the West Midlands Region by the RTPI and subsequently placed 2nd in the National award.

Based on the latest polling, a change in government is likely at the next general election, which is expected next year. Whilst the composition of the next government is unknown, what is known is that the planning system needs a significant overhaul, to enable the rapid and efficient delivery of much needed housing across the country.

As such, there is an opportunity for the incoming government to reshape planning policy and speed up housing delivery. New governments are often initially judged by achievements within the first hundred days and also once they’ve got to grips with things, after a year or two. Therefore, I set out below my planning recommendations to the incoming Labour government with key targets within the first hundred days and by the second year of their term.

First Hundred Days
1) Resource Planning Departments
• At the Labour Party Conference in October 2023, it was refreshing to hear Keir Starmer pledge 300 additional planners, amongst a raft of changes to reform the existing planning system. However, I think the incoming Labour government should go further, much further. Having discussed this with several practitioners within the industry (both public and private sector), I would argue that the number one issue facing the sector is under resourced Local Planning Authorities (LPAs). I would urge Keir to aim for 3,000 additional planners, rather than 300 planners.

• I propose that the incoming Labour government work with the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) and the Local Government Association (LGA) to put in place a recruitment programme, whereby upon leaving university, planners who work for any LPA would automatically receive ‘Chartered’ status from the RTPI after one year of employment. Following this one-year period, these planners would be enrolled onto a planning master’s course (2-year or 3-year part time and funded by the government) and upon completion be bonded to any LPA for two additional years. There are other ways to attract planners to LPAs – a collaborative approach with the aforementioned parties is required. Appreciate this won’t be delivered in full within the first hundred days but it must be a priority.

2) Mandatory LPA Housing Targets
• I was bitterly disappointed when Rishi Sunak gave in to rebellious backbench MPs, led by Theresa Villiers, who proposed an amendment to scrap mandatory housebuilding targets in favour of making this ‘advisory’. Mandatory housebuilding targets for LPAs are critical in ensuring housebuilding continues at pace. Perversely, this amendment is massively counterproductive in achieving the government’s own ambitions of delivering 300,000 homes annually. Unsurprisingly, this annual target has never been met! My strong recommendation for the incoming Labour government is to reinstate the mandatory housebuilding targets for LPAs.

3) Regional Spatial Strategies
• On the 6th July 2010, many will recall that Eric Pickles (now Baron Pickles) stated:
“Today I am making the first step to deliver our commitment in the coalition agreement to “rapidly abolish Regional Spatial Strategies and return decision-making powers on housing and planning to local councils”, by revoking Regional Strategies.”
This decision preceded my employment within the built environment sector. However, it seems to me that this was a huge mistake and one that the incoming Labour government should reinstate. The benefits of Regional Spatial Strategies (RSS) appear significantly positive in delivering infrastructure, identifying long term locations for growth (both housing and employment), facilitating collaborative climate change objectives, and ensuring biodiversity, ecology and well-being are strategically considered. RSSs will inform new Local Plans, especially given the overwhelming majority of England is two-tiered.

4) Housing Minister
• By my count, since 2010 there have been sixteen (yes 16!) housing ministers which, on average, is 1 housing minister every 9 months. This instability is unhelpful, especially when seeking to address one of the most serious issues facing our country. An easy win for the incoming Labour government would be to publicly commit to having one housing minister in post for an extensive period – full term of parliament would be ideal. It would signal that the government is truly focused on housing delivery.

5) National Housing Targets
• At October’s Labour Party Conference, Keir Starmer announced that Labour will build 1.5 million new homes over five years. This is basically the same as was announced by the extant Conservative government who aim, albeit unsuccessfully, to build 300,000 homes annually. I welcome Keir’s announcement but announcements from governments aren’t always worth a lot. If Keir is serious then this target should be introduced as a key standalone policy (with immediate effect) with responsibility for delivery falling on the new Housing Minister. There should also be annual progress updates.
Within Two Years

6) Reform Planning Committees
• I’ve seen it too many times to count. What’s that you ask? Planning Committees voting against applications that fully accord with the adopted Development Plan. It’s probably the most frustrating part of my job. I suggest Planning Committees be reformed as follows:
o (1) reduce the size of planning committees to half of the current makeup and replace them with volunteer professionals from the built environment sector (Chartered Town Planners, Architects, Engineers, Ecologists, etc.). I, for one, would give up an evening each month to assess applications, with my professional hat on, and assist the Planning Committee to make decisions on planning merit.
o (2) the planning/housebuilding sector is ever changing, and my experience has been that many Planning Committee Members are not fully up to date with latest planning policies, guidance and laws. As such, Planning Committee Members should attend mandatory quarterly planning briefings. If Members fail to attend two or more of the four annual briefings, then they should be made to stand down from the Planning Committee.

7) Green Belt Review
• A wholescale government-led Green Belt Review must be undertaken by the incoming government. For far too long, the Green Belt has been a political hot potato, with neither major political party getting to grips with it. It was good to hear Keir outline that Labour would build on the Green Belt. However, the industry needs to see action which clearly redefines Green Belt Policy to enable 1.5 million homes to be built. The Green Belt Review should be reflected in the new NPPF, the reinstated RSSs and in new Local Plans. The new government won’t meet their ambitious housing delivery strategy unless unsuitable Green Belt land is removed from the Green Belt. This must be government led as LPAs have consistently failed to make comprehensive Green Belt decisions.

8) New Local Plans
• The existing NPPF already requires LPAs to produce new Local Plans covering a minimum of 15 years ahead. However, a significant proportion of LPAs have fallen short of this and seemingly are not motivated to meet this requirement. I recommend new guidance which stipulates that new Local Plans be prepared within 24 months from start to submission to the Planning Inspectorate. If LPAs fail to accord with the above timescales, then the Planning Inspectorate will step in and create the new Local Plan. However, as a consequence of the LPA’s failure, the new Local Plan will have an additional development uplift of 20% above the objectively assessed development needs for that LPA area.

9) National Planning Policy Framework
• At some point, it would be expected that any new government will review most of the policies they’ve inherited and either keep as is or update or bin them. I’m hopeful that the incoming Labour government takes on board my recommendations and therefore I anticipate that a wholescale Green Belt Review will be undertaken, National Housing Target will come to fruition and clear guidance on new Local Plans will emerge. As such, a new NPPF (or some similarly named national planning policy document) will be produced to capture the government’s direction of travel. Work on this should commence immediately.

10) Renters qualifying for home ownership
• The new government should focus on increasing home ownership. So many hard-working people can’t afford to own a home because it’s difficult to raise the deposit. I recommend that the new government introduce a mortgage product whereby renters who have paid rent in full for three years (with good credit) be offered 100% mortgages. They have demonstrated their ability to consistently repay. It might be that interest rates on these mortgage products are slightly higher and be for a longer term (5-10 years), but a significant swathe of people would end up owning rather than renting, which is a good thing.

The above is enough for the incoming Labour government to get on with but I have other suggestions, which Labour might want to consider, such as:
• Incentivising downsizing to free up family homes;
• Empowering Councils to build more houses, especially affordable; and
• Empty Homes Fund incentive.

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