Sue Hayman on the rhetoric and reality of the government’s regeneration agenda, ahead of the Lords second reading of the Levelling-Up Bill
While long and complex, the Levelling-Up and Regeneration Bill contains surprisingly little that would deliver genuinely transformative change. Focused on reforming planning law, the bill lacks ambition – especially frustrating at a time when many people are desperate for a government that provides leadership and support.
A missed opportunity therefore – and one that necessitates a different government, with a fresh offer – but what about the actual content of the Bill.
Part 1 establishes the ‘Missions’ that would apparently level-up our country, as previously trumpeted in the White Paper. But these are not spelled out in any details, and ministers will be able to change them at any time.
So, no plan to tackle entrenched regional inequalities; no plan to unleash the wasted potential of our nations and regions; and no plan to deal with the disparities in healthy life expectancy and educational outcomes. The devil would seem to be in the lack of detail.
Part 2 covers local democracy, and it is right that local authorities and communities get more say in decision-making. There is an opportunity to strengthen local government, but only as long as it is adequately resourced. Whitehall cannot continue to expect more from councils without the finance and support needed to deliver.
Much of the rest of the Bill involves planning regulations, but the proposals have been diminished significantly from the 2020 Planning White Paper and fall short of providing solutions to solving the UK housing crisis.
We urgently need to build good quality, cheap to heat, genuinely affordable housing, including social homes. But some clauses in this Bill could potentially introduce barriers to development, muddying the planning system further and potentially making it more technocratic and less accessible to the public.
The Bill also proposes to replace the current system for developer contributions with a new Levy to ensure "more of the money accrued by landowners and developers" goes towards local infrastructure.
Almost 50% of all new affordable housing is currently funded using Section 106 agreements, so these changes would represent a significant shift in how affordable housing is funded and delivered. The new Levy appears similar to the current Community Infrastructure one but will also cover affordable housing.
No detail is given regarding the accompanying S106 restrictions that will be put in place, with the expectation being that the Secretary of State sets all of that out via secondary legislation. The risk however is that developer contributions could be diverted towards unspecified forms of infrastructure. With 4.2 million people currently in need of social housing in England, any changes to the planning system that don’t protect the delivery of new affordable housing would be a dereliction of duty by the ministers.
There is also a proposal to introduce new centrally produced planning policies - National Development Management Policies (NDMPs). But any conflict between local plans and these will be decided in favour of the NDMPs, effectively circumventing local policy innovation and putting more powers in the hands of the Secretary of State.
So much for the localism agenda, when your stated intent to devolve power sees it clawed back under the guise of planning reform. Moreover, this new centralism is neither accompanied by any accountability or transparency through consultation, nor checks and balances on the content of any new NDMP.
The Bill also provides for Environmental Outcomes Reports, which should be very welcome. But they are narrowly defined to include cultural heritage and landscape, for example, while failing to account for climate outcomes and improving human health.
All in all, the Government appears to have squandered a real chance to genuinely address the deep, structural inequalities that exist in our country, including in education, skills, health, wellbeing. A missed opportunity, therefore, to turn levelling up into something tangible beyond the rhetoric – assuming of course it was ever anything more that?
Baroness Sue Hayman of Ullock is Shadow Levelling-Up Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @SueHayman1
Published 16th January 2023