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Party conferences: Conservatives and Labour draw dividing lines ahead of an election

11th October 2023 By Brandon Henderson
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It’s been a noisy conference season! With plentiful headlines in what is likely the last set of party conferences before a general election, we’ve produced a run-down with our thoughts around the key announcements coming out of the party conferences, and what they mean for our clients.

HS2 derailed and the future of Northern transport in doubt

The Conservative conference in Manchester was dominated by speculation over HS2, so much so that the media frenzy outside the main hall drowned out the speeches of cabinet ministers.

After years of redrawing and cancelling parts of its second phase, Rishi Sunak declared in the main hall: “I am cancelling the rest of the HS2 project”. The y-shaped second phase announced by the Cameron government in 2012 would have delivered new high-speed connections to Manchester and Leeds, the latter of which had already been cancelled in 2021.

The Prime Minister then announced Network North – a series of transport and infrastructure projects which the government says will be delivered using the £36bn of savings made from cancelling the second phase of HS2. Such projects include the revival of a new station in Bradford cancelled only 11 months ago, West Yorkshire mass transit, re-opening closed railway lines and electrifying existing lines, alongside investment in roads and local transport.

Can we be sure the schemes will be delivered? The jury is very much out. Under 24 hours after the announcement, references to some projects such as the re-opening of a railway line in the North East were removed from the list of proposals. The following Sunday, the Transport Secretary himself stated that the announced projects were mere “examples”.

At the Labour conference in Liverpool, Shadow Transport Secretary Louise Haigh promised that an incoming Labour government would “overhaul the rail system, and we will outline the detailed vision for that in the coming days, weeks and months”. The plan will reportedly include bringing rail into public ownership.

The bottom line: Delivering HS2 and Northern projects in tandem is essential to improved North-South and East-West connectivity, as well as being key to turbocharging growth in the North. Being able to travel quickly between Manchester and the capital, Liverpool to Hull, Sheffield to Leeds, is equally beneficial to the people living and working in these areas.

Housing absent at Conservative conference as Labour pledge to “rebuild Britain”

It didn’t go unnoticed that housing wasn’t mentioned in Rishi Sunak’s conference speech.

Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove used his own conference address to speak about the government’s record on housing, with a few words on freeing up brownfield sites for new developments and building-up in towns and cities. However, the content of Gove’s speech wasn’t necessarily new and merely built on the government’s ‘long term plan for housing’ announced in July.

The plan focuses primarily on densification in already built-up areas whilst releasing additional funds to scale up capacity in local authority planning departments. Some words I wrote last month on the government’s position on far-reaching planning reform still stand, as we’re yet to see any indication from them that they’re willing to pursue such radical changes.

Over in Merseyside, we heard from the Shadow Chancellor that “we are being held back by an antiquated planning system that I am determined to reform”.

Rachel Reeves has come out of this year’s conference season with an ever-more solidified image as the Shadow Cabinet’s leading pro-development voice.

Amongst the ironclad and economically literate image that the Shadow Chancellor is carving out for herself, that of a conscious reformer is also emerging. In her speech to delegates in conference hall, Reeves repeatedly remarked that she would “rebuild Britain” if Labour wins the next election, grounding her treasury ethos in “securonomics” to make the UK more economically resilient.

What would Labour’s “rebuild Britain” mission look like? It involves reforming the planning system to boost housebuilding and to fast-track infrastructure projects, further enabled by investment in local authority planning capacity and the hiring of 300 new planners across the public sector to re-write the planning guidance.

Keir Starmer’s (somewhat glittery) conference speech came the day after the Shadow Chancellor’s, saving some of the wider housing plans for last. The Labour leader promised to channel the Wilson government’s approach to housebuilding, using state-backed companies to lead development on new towns with high-growth potential, much like the ones built in the latter half of the 20th century (Milton Keynes, Stevenage, etc).

The green belt will also fall under the microscope in the event of a Labour government coming to power. Going bold, Starmer plans to free up low-quality green belt – or “grey belt” as he’s labelled it – to secure more land for new homes. It will be interesting to see whether the “grey belt” term catches on, as many less development-minded voters remain nervous about any green belt being released for development – can this sort of framing change their minds?

The Shadow Cabinet went into conference with a three-fold approach to announcing their approach to housing. Angela Rayner joined Starmer and Reeves in detailing more of the party’s plans, vowing to achieve the “biggest increase in affordable housing in a generation”, whilst releasing new funds for housing associations and councils to build new homes.

The party will set a target of building 1.5 million homes over the course of a 5-year Parliament, equating to 300,000 new homes annually – unchanged from the government’s current target that has not been met. It may well be that Labour have set this target to allow room for underselling and overdelivering, but it remains crucial they don’t lose sight of the challenge ahead in meeting demand and tackling the housing crisis.

The dividing lines on net zero are drawn

Speaking on infrastructure projects, Reeves took aim at Rishi Sunak’s recent changes to the government’s position on achieving net zero and pledged to accelerate the construction of clean energy assets, battery factories and grid connections – all of which Labour says would be achieved through their proposed planning reforms.

Shadow Net Zero and Energy Security Ed Miliband argued for the acceleration of decarbonising British industries, re-iterating Labour’s commitment to setting up GB Energy – a state-owned energy company that would coordinate and unlock investment in green energy. This would form part of Labour’s proposed ‘Energy Independence Act’, a bill that the party says will enable the UK electricity grid to be fully sourced from clean power by 2030.

Miliband also stated that existing oil and gas extraction would continue to be utilised, though stressed that new licenses would not be handed out, in a bid to reassure the world that the UK is committed to achieving net zero by 2050.

The approach to net zero has become one of the key dividing lines between Labour and the Conservatives. Two weeks ago at the Conservative conference, Energy Secretary Claire Coutinho said that the journey to net zero was “impoverishing” Britons, in what was widely seen as a climbdown in the government’s commitment to cutting emissions.

Whilst it may be right to acknowledge that the transition to net zero can be costly, particularly the switch to an electric car and insulating your home, government proactiveness is essential to tackling the cost hurdles. Accelerating the production of battery factories and charging points whilst exploring all available avenues of support for families wanting to retrofit their homes will surely ease the transition and the costs associated with it.