With a new Prime Minister, a new Chancellor, a new Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and a new Housing and Planning Minister (as well as new faces in almost every other major position in government), what would emerge from this year's Conservative Party Conference with regard to Housing and Planning policy was anybody's guess. What did eventually emerge was a far greater emphasis on housebuilding and infrastructure than was previously foreseen; whilst it was inevitable that it would be addressed, few expected housebuilding and infrastructure to be one of the key themes of the entire event.
In her inaugural Conference Speech as Prime Minister, Theresa May highlighted housing as a key issue that underlies many other policy areas that she wishes to pursue, declaring that when asking "almost any question about social fairness or problems with our economy, … the answer so often comes back to housing", that the "honest truth" is that "we simply need to build more homes" by "using the power to government to step in and repair the dysfunctional housing market". On infrastructure, she said that her government intends to "take big, sometimes even controversial, decisions about our country's infrastructure" in order to "get Britain firing in all areas again". She then announced that her government would be committed to pressing ahead with HS2, as well as shortly announcing a "decision on expanding Britain's airport capacity".
Housing was also mentioned in Philip Hammond's inaugural speech as Chancellor. Like May, he listed "the unaffordability of housing" as a "big challenge that needs to be tackled" in order to deal with broader problems with the economy. Infrastructure was also on the Chancellor's agenda, as he declared that "ensuring we have world class infrastructure is vital to maintaining our competitiveness". He went to on to announce a re-commitment of the government to the National Infrastructure Commission established by George Osborne in 2015 as a non-ministerial government department responsible for providing expert advice to the government on infrastructure challenges, saying that he intends to ensure that the Commission is "the very heart of our plans to renew and expand Britain's infrastructure". This commitment has been put into action today (12th October 2016) with the publication of Charter for the National Infrastructure Commission to "articulate the government's commitment to the National Infrastructure Commission(NIC)", setting out the NIC's purpose and the balance of responsibility between the government and the NIC. However, the true commitment of the government to the NIC is somewhat dubious given the omission of the NIC from the Neighbourhood Planning Bill published last month. The government appears to still be reluctant to give the organisation statutory footing, despite stressing its commitment to infrastructure improvement as a keystone of national policy.
Hammond referenced Sajid Javid's speech as the new Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government given earlier at conference in regard to the government's commitment to housing. Javid devoted his entire speech to the matter, describing it as a "huge issue for our country…that our new Prime Minister is determined to do something about". He then went on to elaborate on policy. He announced that the Government are opening a £3 billion Home Builder's Fund, with the goal of building 225,000 new homes. Specifics of this policy have since been released. £1 billion of the three billion will be short term loan funding, used for the small builders, custom builders and innovators to deliver 25,000 homes in the short term. The remaining £2 billion is intended as long-term funding for infrastructure, to be used to unlock a pipeline of up to 200,000.
Javid then went on to announce a new initiative: the Accelerated Construction scheme, which is intended to enable Authorities to "take Government-owned land and partner with contractors and investors to speed up housebuilding". It has since been revealed that this policy will release a further £2 billion of public money for borrowing in order to achieve this. He then said that the government further intended to bring forward measures to encourage building on brownfield land; the government wants to "radically increase" brownfield development and secure a higher density of housing around stations . He also promised further measures to be set out in a Housing White Paper which would help the government toward their ambition of building "a million new homes by 2020".
This Housing White Paper could well contain detailed proposals for some of the measures set out by the new Housing and Planning Minister Gavin Barwell at various fringe events. Barwell reportedly attended 17 events and meetings on the topic of housing whilst at Conference. Some notable proposals that he put forward include:
- Housebuilders being required to provide timetables for building out schemes. Essentially, councils under this proposal when granting planning permission for new homes could expect developers to set out clear timetables for building and "hold people to those commitments". Housing permissions could also begin to be accompanied by a right for councils to tell developers to "build out more quickly".
- A focus on housing supply in the 1/3 of English local authorities where the gap between the number of homes being build and levels of household growth is widest.
- Measures to assist communities with the neighbourhood planning process. Government-commissioned experts could be called in to help neighbourhoods struggling with the plan preparation process.
- Measures to encourage more neighbourhood plans drawn up in deprived urban areas where take-up of the policy has been low, to secure a uniform spread.
It is therefore clear from the speeches of all major Government players on the issue that Theresa May's administration have used the Conservative Party Conference to set out ambitious goals on housebuilding and infrastructure, establishing it as one of the keystones of their ambition to create a "country that works for everyone."