Immediately after BMF Members’ Day, we travelled to the main party conferences around the country. Each had a very different vibe as the fortunes of the parties ebbed and flowed in the opinion polls. In the shadow of the HS2 decision, the BMF took the train to Bournemouth, Manchester, Liverpool and Aberdeen expecting the unexpected.
This article covers events in September and October when these occasions were widely seen as being the last such gatherings before next year’s General Election. There was plenty to discuss on housing, levelling up, training & skills, and net zero. In this article, Brett Amphlett (BMF Policy & Public Affairs) describes who we met and the topics directly relevant to BMF members.
LIB DEMS IN BOURNEMOUTH
Blessed with late summer sunshine, Liberal Democrats arrived in buoyant mood on the back of their by-election success in nearby Somerton & Frome. Although they only have 15 MPs, in the House of Lords they have 81 peers, and are still a sizeable force in local government.
Both before and since the Coalition Government, the BMF has taken them seriously as a broad-based UK party. They have elected representatives in both the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments. In Northern Ireland, the Alliance Party is their sister party.
In Bournemouth, we met and spoke to:
Helen Morgan MP, Housing Spokeswoman;
Tim Farron MP, Environment Spokesman;
Lord Stunell, Construction Spokesman;
Lord Teverson, Climate Change Spokesman.
This Conference was dominated by a huge row on housing policy between the Young Lib Dems and the National Leadership (see later section) which is rare for this party.
CONSERVATIVES IN MANCHESTER
The Conservatives arrived in town having lost 3 parliamentary by-elections this year – although Steve Tuckwell MP, who won in Uxbridge after Boris Johnson left was present. The mood was flat and with poor poll ratings, the fewer number of party members and grassroots activists were glum and weary. Many MPs were absent, which was noticeable and disappointing, as were significant employers and business leaders who usually attend.
With tight security due to various protestors outside – it was tricky to meet government ministers – with print & broadcast media trailing them everywhere – but we had the chance to talk to:
Rachel Maclean MP, Housing and Planning Minister;
Lee Rowley MP, Local Government & Building Safety Minister;
Chris Philp MP, Policing & Crime Prevention Minister;
Nusrat Ghani MP, Construction & Industry Minister;
Lord Callanan, Energy Efficiency Minister.
The Prime Minister’s decision to cancel HS2 from Birmingham to Manchester (finally announced in Manchester) was the worst-keep secret at conference. Plenty of Tory-held constituencies, local councils and employers in northern England were angry. If asked, we pointed out that for both:
the eastern leg from Birmingham via Nottingham to Leeds (already cancelled);
and the (just cancelled) western leg from Birmingham via Crewe to Manchester; there were housing projects, contingent on the lines being completed, that will now not be built.
LABOUR IN LIVERPOOL
Labour enjoyed a high turnout of constituency delegates & affiliates – in addition to commercial observers (like us), trade unions and charities – all seeking to lobby the party widely regarded as the next government-in-waiting. Labour was united, disciplined & organised and their will-to-win was clear. There were many housing & planning announcements (see later) and the Party’s National Leadership wanted to convey an air of competence, fiscal responsibility and readiness.
The BMF was pleased to talk to:
Jonathan Reynolds MP, Shadow Business & Trade Secretary;
Bill Esterson MP, Shadow Construction Minister;
Alan Whitehead MP, Shadow Energy Minister;
metro-mayors Steve Rotheram (in his home city) and Tracy Brabin (West Yorkshire);
peers who speak for Labour in the House of Lords such as Baroness Hayman (Environment) and Baroness Blake (Business).
The speech by Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves MP was aimed at corporate leaders and business owners – in which she sought to reassure them of Labour’s desire to instil economic confidence and financial stability – so they can invest and run their companies successfully.
SNP IN ABERDEEN
The SNP returned to Aberdeen where we met members of both Scottish and UK Parliaments to update them on BMF activity and discuss policy. It was their first big gathering since the change of leadership after the arrest of Nicola Sturgeon MSP and her husband.
Following his election as Leader, Humza Yousaf MSP reshuffled his government that now has 5 members aged under 40 and (for the first time ever) a majority of women. Ministers known to us had moved or were sacked, and we had to make new acquaintances.
The BMF met Richard Lochhead MSP, Minister for Small Business, Innovation, Tourism & Trade, in person, rather than on Zoom, who is responsible for construction and is our sponsoring minister. We described our role & importance to the Scottish economy; updated him on market trends & future prospects; and talked about the new Scottish Construction Accord and Transformation Plan that government & industry have jointly embarked upon.
Among their Westminster team, we spoke to Alison Thewliss MP (tool theft), Dave Doogan MP (net zero heating) and Alan Brown MP (construction).
HOUSING AND PLANNING
The political parties are ideologically different and clear dividing lines are emerging on housing demand & supply, help for first time buyers and housing tenures.
The Lib Dems debated their ‘Tackling the Housing Crisis’ policy paper in which they put forward ideas to modify England’s planning & development system – notably:
replace the current 5-year housing targets in favour of well-evidenced 15-year targets;
provide councils with flexibility to protect local beauty spots and allow building on unused Green Belt land with little amenity value;
strengthen neighbourhood plans and encourage further take-up of them locally;
give local councils the powers to limit second homes and holiday lets;
scrap national housing targets given the failure of successive governments to meet them.
These ideas merit attention due to increased Lib Dem numbers in local government where they have gained councillors from the Conservatives. But it went awry as delegates rebelled against the Party Leadership’s move to scrap two national house-building targets: (a) 380,000 new homes a year and (b) 150,000 new social rent homes a year.
The Young Liberals argued vociferously to retain the targets – citing intergenerational unfairness – and were supported by several local authority leaders and ex-MPs. Former Party Leader Tim Farron MP was booed for arguing that the target, which he called “vague and vacuous”, should be scrapped. Other speakers reiterated his view and the debate became heated and personal, with accusations of Thatcherism made. Given that this was the mild-mannered Lib Dems attacking each other in public, it was a sight to behold.Helen Morgan MP, Shadow Housing Minister, had a difficult job to hold the Party together – but delegates voted to restore the targets against Sir Ed Davey’s wishes.
Before arriving in Manchester, ministers defended their policies in final debates on the Levelling Up & Regeneration Bill before it became law in October. For BMF members, the main points were:
the Government strongly encourages the re-use of suitable brownfield land;
this new Act will empower local leaders to regenerate urban centres by strengthening and adding to existing measures;
the Green Belt is protected and the DLUHC will discourage development;
despite no set date for publication, ministers are working on the long-awaited consultation on the next reforms to the National Policy Planning Framework promised in the LURB Bill above.
Michael Gove MP (Secretary of State) and Rachel Maclean MP (Minister for Housing) have a difficult path to tread in the face of (a) anger from Conservatives in southern England about “concreting over the countryside” where the infamous algorithm was universally rejected and (b) concerned house-builders who have either stopped buying land, revised their forecasts, mothballed sites, laid-off staff, or all of these.
In Manchester, housing and planning were noticeably absent from the main conference. The Prime Minister did not refer to them in his conference speech. The BMF, individual companies (like Taylor Wimpey, Vistry & Thakeham) and industry voices (like the HBF, FMB & NFB) debated the issues on the fringe with Tory MPs who specialise in housing & planning. During both of last year’s Tory Leadership contests, Rishi Sunak was against the 300,000 new homes pledge for England and said he would scrap these “Soviet-style top-down housing targets”.
Housing and planning policy was prominent in Liverpool, in stark contrast to the Tories the week before. It featured in speeches by their big guns: Sir Keir Starmer MP (Leader), Angela Rayner MP (Deputy Leader and Shadow Housing Secretary) and Rachel Reeves MP (Shadow Chancellor). All three repeated the phrase “Get Britain Building Again” several times.
Labour will introduce “once in a generation” reforms for housing, energy and transport, according to Rachel Reeves MP. She said her Party will “take on our antiquated planning system” to deliver more homes and expand local planning authority capacity. The other slogan they often used during their conference was “Labour stands with the builders not the blockers”.
Sir Keir pledged his Party to build 1½ million new homes over 5 years with his “new plan to Get Britain Building”. This includes a wave of New Towns like the 1950s. Deputy Leader Angela Rayner said that Labour would oversee “the biggest boost in affordable housing in a generation” by getting tough on developers who “wriggle out” of Section 106 requirements.
The headline proposals were:
to build 1½ million new homes during the next Parliament – with new social & affordable housing at the core;
to review and release low-quality Green Belt for development where there are “ridiculous uses” like disused car parks and “dreary wasteland” that Starmer described as ‘Grey Belt’;
to develop New Towns on land along railways and other infrastructure to create “vibrant communities” and “bustling high streets”;
to stop local authorities refusing to develop a local plan because ‘they prefer back-door deals” with developers – with penalties for councils if they do not reach their housing targets;
to hire 300 more planning officers across the country to strengthen public sector capacity to speed up planning decisions;
to tackle NIMBYs and get tough with local opponents who resist new development.
On taking office, Angela Rayner (as the new DLUHC Secretary of State) will write to all chief planning officers to instruct local authorities to approve planning applications in areas which do not have a Local Plan and fail other tests like the Housing Delivery Test. Rachel Reeves will increase Stamp Duty on overseas buyers to pay for the expansion of planning capacity in town halls. She wants to accelerate the current Government’s plan to increase planning application fees – and perhaps go further – with revenue ring-fenced for more planning resources.
Labour intends to give planning officers stronger authority to grant permission on smaller sites that are in line with the Local Plan – without needing to refer to a Planning Committee – and define (in written guidance) that pre-application advice by officers is a material consideration to the planning decision. Labour also intends to give local communities a right to appeal against off-plan and speculative development
In 2024, there will be a UK General Election that – based on recent parliamentary by-elections – many commentators think they already know which party will win. The BMF is politically-neutral and does not favour any party over another. We are respected and have a good reputation with elected members and public officials who take us seriously because of our unique position.
Until the votes are cast & counted, we shall foster good working relations with the Conservatives at Westminster & Whitehall, Welsh Labour in Cardiff and the SNP in Edinburgh. The BMF ‘ask’ of the next UK Government is for clear, unambiguous and properly-costed policies that industry and government can jointly pursue relentlessly to “Get Britain Building”.
N.B. this article covers events that took place in September and October. Since then, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have reshuffled their teams – some references or job holders referred to above are no longer applicable.