Conservative Party Conference, Birmingham 2022

As always, the annual party conference was a hectic affair, but this year had the added spice of yet another new Government and Prime Minister, but all did not go to plan!

The ‘fiscal event’ the week before set the scene for the conference. The cutting of the higher tax rate, and the reversal of that decision, followed by discussion about linking benefits to inflation, had the media in a frenzy of excitement. Unfortunately, that did not permeate down to those attending as the whole conference experience was actually a predictable anti-climax: many of the ministers had only been in post for a matter of minutes and were unable to provide answers on policies, let alone the detail, as they had yet to get to grips with their portfolios.

Without this detail, commentators and the media have had to resort to speculation, with predictions of the directions the Government may go. Time will tell whether these were accurate.

Planning and development

In terms of planning and development, the key questions were around the ‘Stalinist’ housing targets, what planning reforms are going to be introduced and whether DLUHC is going to start using its powers.

The new DLUHC secretary of state, Simon Clarke MP, now referred to as the ‘levelling up’ secretary, broadly set out his initial priorities at Conference this week. ‘Local consent’ was at the heart of the strategy to build more homes: “We want to grow organic communities, not impose cardboard boxes across our shires”. He also stressed the commitment to developing brownfield first, to strengthen the powers of existing mayors and empower local government to deliver for their communities. We shall wait to see what this actually means once policy detail is more clearly defined.

Growth Agenda

The target of building 300,000 homes per year was a manifesto promise in 2019. It is a figure which, if reached consistently over a decade, would go some way to solve the housing crisis: to meet the pent-up housing need, providing homes to all that want them, and stabilising the housing market in terms of housing supply and price. The Prime Minister has already made it clear that her overriding objective is ‘growth, growth, growth’, and one of the main engines for growth is housing.

Having a growth agenda is not compatible with Liz Truss’s Stalinist housing target comment. It was, however, music to the ears to those in the ‘blue shires’ and will have helped her get elected. She is unlikely to abolish the housing targets but may well amend the way the figures are calculated.

Councils ‘dragging their feet’

There are many councils which have been dragging their feet with their local plans, using pretty much any excuse not to progress. Examples are abound including St Albans, Basildon, Castle Point, Hertsmere and Uttlesford, to name but a few. Up-to-date local plans are crucial for the delivery of the housing numbers needed.

The question is whether DLUHC will start to be more forceful in ensuring councils are working towards delivering local plans. The Government has been exercising its powers recently including withdrawing Uttlesford’s planning powers due to poor performance, the first time it had done that since 2014, and, only last month, putting Thurrock Council into Special Measures.

It is too early to know what the new Government has in store, and perhaps expectations at the Conference were too high. All will become clearer in the coming weeks and months.