The UK General Election: A Brief Overview to Politics and Planning

Josh Rule moved from Australia to the UK in June 2014, and has had to get across the differences between the Australian and British parliamentary and planning systems (fortunately they are not polar opposites!). Given planning is a national issue in the UK and the next UK General Election is fast approaching he has written a brief overview of planning and politics – the parties, the issues and what it means for planners. Even if you’re not in the UK this election is still important to you across the Commonwealth given the UK’s importance as an international actor and its role in influencing international policy.

Planning in England

Planning in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK) is a responsibility held by the national governments that comprise the UK – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is a devolved responsibility, and the Government of the United Kingdom only holds planning responsibility for England. In each of the other nations of the UK (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) their governments are responsible for planning. Given this and for simplicity, I will focus only on planning as it relates to England in relation to this election. 

Since 2010 there have been major changes to the English planning system. The Conservative Government abolished the previous government’s regional approach to planning where strategic plans covered each of the regions. It introduced the National Planning Policy Framework which reduced 1000 pages of planning guidance down to 50 in a move designed to simplify and streamline the system. Through the Localism Act 2011 the Government refocused planning at the local and neighbourhood level, emphasising the role of communities in creating Neighbourhood Plans (which sit under Local Plans) to guide development. The full impact of these considerable changes has not fully materialised.

To complicate matters further, the UK is in the midst of a housing crisis which has been building (no pun intended) for a generation. The cost of housing has engaged the public in a way unlike any other planning or built environment issue.  

Politics in the UK

The political scene has changed dramatically in the United Kingdom from a historical two party dominated system to one that is increasingly fragmented. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) is an anti-European Union party that would like to significantly restrict immigration and has gained increasing support in England. The formation of a Coalition Government (Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats) in 2010 was a symptom of a major shift in British politics of a system that is increasingly pluralistic. The outcome of the election is highly uncertain and the minor parties are likely to play a greater role in forming or supporting the next government. In the nations, the Scottish National Party (SNP) continues to build support despite the failed referendum on Scottish independence in 2014. The SNP is expected to win most of the seats (predictions of 56 out of 59) in Scotland which have been traditionally held by the Labour Party. In Wales, Plaid Cymru is the biggest minor party built around its belief in nationalism (read all of their policies) but is unlikely to win any more seats in Wales (they currently have three). On planning they want to reform the system for local need and benefit, sustainability and to put the Welsh language at the heart of it. Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland, the DUP have focused on economic growth and using the planning system to boost their economy, read their policies here while the Social Democratic and Labour Party (also in Northern Ireland) are about ‘prosperity not austerity’ and have focused on housing provision, particularly social housing and the regulation of the rented housing sector. Finally, Sinn Fein want to boost housing building and have further devolution from the United Kingdom (transfer of economic and fiscal responsibility).  

The political parties in England

The Green Party is enjoying increased attention at this election despite not looking likely to pick up any extra seats (they currently hold one). Their main policies include – a fair economy, a public health system, a safe climate, free education, better (public) transport and decent homes – read their manifesto. On housing they’ve promised 500,000 social rented homes and improved household energy efficiency. They’re opposed to the proposed High Speed Two (HS2) rail line and would renationalise the rest of the rail network.  

UKIP’s policy offering is focused on restricted immigration (except for those from select Commonwealth countries) and withdrawing from the European Union (read their policies in full). On planning, they too, are opposed to HS2 and building on the green belt while planning permissions for major developments could be overturned by a local referendum.    

The Labour Party has focused on increasing funding for health and reaffirming its opposition to privatisation of the health system. The economy also features, focusing on the uneven recovery of the British economy (read all of their commitments). Two major reviews have shaped their thinking around infrastructure and housing. Sir John Armitt completed his review on infrastructure, recommending an independent National Infrastructure Commission (not unlike Australia’s) complemented by a long term national infrastructure plan. Sir Michael Lyons used his review on housing in 2014 to suggest speeding up the planning process in addition to new government powers to force councils to produce and follow house building plans to build at least 200,000 new homes each year.  

The Conservative Party, has focused on the recovering and growing economy, read their election manifesto. Their housing policy is focused on measures to increase house building and to assist individuals and families purchase their own home. Starter Homes, for example, will facilitate 100,000 homes being built and then sold at a discount of 20% for new home buyers under 40 years of age.  

Despite being the Conservative’s coalition partner in government, according to the polls the Liberal Democrats are likely to lose seats at the next election. They have made increasing education funding their top policy priority, followed by protecting the environment, increasing health funding, balancing the government’s budget and increasing the minimum wage (read all of their commitments). They have committed to increase the rate of house building to 300,000 homes a year plus 10 new garden cities. 

The issues in England

Everyone agrees there is a housing crisis but as you’d expect all the parties have different ideas on how to fix it. That said, they all appear to agree that brownfield land should be prioritised for housing development first. The other contentious issue is the green belt. Essentially, the green belt is open land surrounding cities and towns. It’s not necessarily pristine habitat or unique landscape in need of preservation. The original intention was for it too provide a clear divide between the city and beyond. The debate here centres around whether we should build on some of the green belt or not (I’ve simplified it here but this is a seriously heated issue with strong, polarised opinions on both sides).  

Finally, the support for devolution continues to grow with announcements from Labour, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. A number of reasons have contributed to this including the growing view that the UK Government, because of its physical location in London and London’s size and economic importance, is too London centric, and the idea of subsidiarity – that powers should be held by government at the lowest appropriate level . Devolution in essence, is the transfer of powers from the UK Government to national (Scotland, for example) and city, county or ‘regional’ governments (the Greater Manchester Combined Authority is a conglomeration of small local governments located around the city of Manchester). Manchester is the best example of the changes that have been occurring and other cities and their surrounding areas are creating governance structures that includes them all in one jurisdiction in return for greater legislative power and additional funding from the UK Government.  

While housing has been relatively prominent during the lead up to this election, housing and planning generally remain relatively low on the media and voting public’s agenda as the economy, the health system and education take centre stage. This is clearly illustrated in the graphic (courtesy of Election Unspun) showing which issues have been covered most by news outlets across the UK.   

What does this mean for planners?

The outcome of the election is highly uncertain. The incredibly close opinion polls mean it’s harder than ever to predict who will form the next government. However, none of the parties are proposing major legislative changes to the planning system which is good given the large scale reworking planning received during this parliament. If devolution continues to unfold it will mean planners will have to operate under different governance structures. Regardless of who forms government, planners can expect continuing pressure to deliver homes as this has been a major focus of all parties.  

media coverage

For more information check out the RTPI’s handy summary of all the parties’ policy positions on planning and the built environment. Plus they are also doing weekly election briefings. For more general information about the UK General Election read this.

Thanks to Josh Rule of the RTPI for the following article- very much appreciated by all at CAP Young Planners

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