Conservative conference 2023: housing write-up 

Conservative conference 2023: housing write-up 

DeHavilland Head of Content Arran Russell has produced a housing round-up from last week's Conservative party conference.

DeHavilland Head of Content Arran Russell has produced a housing round-up from last week’s Conservative party conference.

Key takeaways:

  • Conference gave the clear impression that the country needs substantial reforms to its planning system, and it requires significant investment into infrastructure to make hitting our housing targets work. 
  • One audience member at a fringe said  this year’s Conserative conference sometimes felt like a housing conference with some politics attached as well.  
  • On the nutrient neutrality debate, both Housing Minister Rachel Maclean and the Secretary of State Michael Gove were unapologetic and said they’d return to Parliament to push this through. 
  • Ms Maclean was bullish throughout the conference, where she repeatedly stressed the need to upset a few people in the short-term to ensure we had the housing and development needed for future generations.

Necessary reforms:

After covering housing and planning at Conservative party conference, you may be reminded of Jean-Claude Juncker’s famous quote about how to deal with the Eurozone crisis: “We all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.” 

The second thing you are constantly reminded of is that on most things Departments want to do, they ultimately must persuade HM Treasury first. 

And so, this year on housing and planning, it’s abundantly clear that the country needs substantial reforms to its planning system, and it requires significant levels of investment into infrastructure to make hitting our housing targets work. Both things, however, are politically impossible or economically unfeasible, respectively it seems. 

Housing and Planning Minister Rachel Maclean is a very busy lady, and she was everywhere. One audience member at a fringe said that at times the conference felt like a housing conference with some politics attached as well, and the range of issues she spoke on was vast.

Planning reform:

On planning, it’s clear that nobody thought the Levelling Up Bill was going to deliver anywhere near the level of reform required, however, National Development Management Policies was clearly something that had a lot of support from people in the sector and some local authority groups. However, showing how difficult planning reform was, a range of NGOs and some audience members opposed them. 

Ms Maclean was bullish throughout, whether it was issues like this or on nimbyism generally. She stressed the need to upset a few people in the short-term to ensure we had the housing and development needed for future generations.  

On infrastructure, Jeremy Hunt said that it took too long to get shovels in the ground when infrastructure projects were proposed and that consultations on national planning policy statements plague renewable energy projects or new airport runways. He added that the “fast-track” infrastructure planning process was broken. 

The Times also reported that a nationwide network of super-pylons will be expedited under planning reforms designed to rewire the electricity grid to reach net zero. Local residents’ ability to obstruct the rapid development of “motorways of power” was set to be curtailed after Rishi Sunak was told that grid capacity has to double to transport energy from offshore wind, solar farms and other renewable sources.

Nutrient neutrality:

On the nutrient neutrality debate, both Ms Maclean and the Secretary of State Michael Gove were unapologetic and said they’d return to Parliament to push this through. Mr Gove, offering a more conciliatory tone than Ms Maclean, said that Government was not neglecting its commitments to the environment, but stressed that the Government had to get house-building going again. He cited other initiatives the Government were doing in this area like support for farmers. While Ms Maclean said housing did not cause pollution and she was very critical of the original legislation.  

The Minister also stressed that the issue was particularly important for smaller housebuilders, a theme throughout the conference for her. Ms Maclean appears very keen to support several initiatives that would increase the diversity of house builders in the market, something she said she was repeatedly speaking to Mr Gove and HM Treasury about moving forward. Of particular note was Ms Maclean suggesting that she was looking at whether planning rules could change to allow a permission-in-principle approach for smaller sites. 

One area where both the Secretary of State and Minister were completely aligned was what was happening in London and Cambridge. Both expressed frustration with the political leadership in both cities on housing and planning, repeatedly highlighting the powers the Government had to intervene where necessary. The Mayor of London in particular came in for heavy criticism from both.

Rental and leasehold reform:

Finally, the Renters Reform Bill discussions delivered the tastiest debates at the conference, with packed rooms full of angry landlords and tenant groups, both unhappy with the Government’s approach. Ms Maclean sought to try and get the balance right, but it’s clear that the Conservatives see more votes in support for renters than for landlords with her focus on preventing no-fault evictions. 

Also, Ms Maclean repeatedly said she was hopeful leasehold reform would be in the King’s Speech but couldn’t promise anything.


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