The Conservative Party conference took place in Manchester in October. Housing and planning policy, in the words of housing minister Rachel Maclean, was approached as a “critical” issue, with discussions and speeches stretching from the use of greenfield by the authority of government over local authority plans.
Maclean told the conference that “we are kidding ourselves if we think we can meet the housing need of the nation just on brownfield land. We have to go much further than that”. When asked about plans to develop Cambridge, Maclean said it was of “national interest” to do so, and that this cannot occur “without in some way using greenfield”.
Maclean also told the conference that she “absolutely will” intervene in local councils that do not have a local plan. In September, Maclean sent a letter to Spelthorne Borough Council, blocking the authority from rescinding their emerging plan from examination. She said that it was “not the case” that all local authorities who have stopped local plans did so because of proposed changes to planning policy by the government.
At a fringe event, Maclean further emphasised the fact that there is “no single answer” to the housing crisis. While discussing the upcoming Renters Reform Bill, that will have its second reading in autumn, Maclean added that “for our party it will be a critical part of what we can offer to the electorate”, stressing that there must be an “aspirational offer” for “younger voters that don’t currently own property”. The housing crisis will decide “key marginals” and create “very heated local battles”, and thus the Conservatives expect the next election to be rested at least partially on the issue of housing.
Michael Gove, secretary of state for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, went on the attack, telling the conference that London mayor Sadiq Khan had been unable “to deliver anything like the number of new homes that London needs”. Gove also accused Labour of wanting to demolish Britain’s green belt for the sake of housing developments and of taking “fields, meadows, and forests away from our children”. He positioned the Conservatives as the party of both “ownership” and of “beauty and nature”, stressing that he prioritises a “beautiful built environment and an enhanced natural environment”.
Former PM Liz Truss also got involved in the housing policy discussion, telling her fringe event audience that she was calling on ministers to build 500,000 homes a year and that the government must “incentivise local areas” to do so.
The main story from the conference was Prime Minister Rishi Sunak scrapping the Birmingham to Manchester leg of HS2, to the vocal disappointment of several prominent Conservatives. Former PM David Cameron warned that the decision to cut the high-speed rail project was the “wrong” one and would make it “much harder” to enact other long-term “transformative” projects in the future.
In its place, Sunak has promised to use £36 billion of savings towards other transport and infrastructure projects. This has been explained in the publication of the ‘Network North: Transforming British Transport’ policy paper. It proposes to move away from Westminster policy and instead ‘invest in the transport that really matters to people – the roads, buses, and railways they use every day’. Sunak’s aspiration for the policy change is to see regions outside of London receive “the same or more government investment than they would have done under HS2”.
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