A House Divided: The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill

On the face of it, the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill should not be controversial; the draft legislation seeks to further decentralise decision-making from Westminster by empowering local authorities with the tools to rejuvenate their local communities. The Bill therefore sits at the core of the Government’s legislative agenda and seeks to play a significant role in reducing the geographical, socio-economic, and health inequalities which are pervasive between, and within, regions across the United Kingdom. (For an overview of the policies contained in the bill, see the appendix below).

Nevertheless, in a sign of the fractures which exist within the Conservative Party, the progress of the Bill through Parliament has morphed into a game of ‘ping-pong’ as rival factions table competing amendments. Consequently, although the Bill ably passed through the Commons’ report stage, the Government, sensing difficulties, pulled the final vote, which was due on Monday 28 November. It is therefore pertinent to assess the various amendments which have been brought forward.

First, the backbencher Theresa Villiers has tabled three amendments to the bill:

NC21 states:

Prohibition of mandatory targets and abolition of five-year land supply rule:

  1. Any housebuilding target for local planning authorities in-
    1. the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF),
    2. regulations made under any enactment, or
    3. any planning policy document

may only be advisory and not mandatory.

2. Accordingly, such targets should not be taken into account in determining planning applications.

3. The NPPF must not impose an obligation on local planning authorities to ensure that sufficient housing development sites are available over five years or any other given period.’

NC24 states:

Requirements of the National Planning Policy Framework:

  1. The Secretary of State must ensure that the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is in accordance with subsections (2) to (6)’
  2. The NPPF must not contain a presumption in favour of sustainable development including where there are no relevant development plan policies, or such policies are out-of-date.
  3. The NPPF must provide for the right for persons to object to individual planning applications.
  4. The NPPF must provide that the Planning Inspectorate may only recommend that local plans not be adopted if –
    1. the consequences of that local plan would be detrimental to the objectives of such plans, and
    2. that local plan is markedly and verifiably atypical in comparison to other such plans.
  5. The NPPF must permit local planning authorities to impose vans on greenfield development in their areas, other than in exceptional circumstances, where –
    1. Greenfield areas make a marked contribution to the local economy through leisure or tourism, and
    2. where sufficient brownfield land is likely to be available to meet housing needs identified in neighbourhood and local plans.
  6. The NPPF must include specific measures designed to support the creation of additional retirement homes, sheltered accommodation for the elderly and facilities for care homes.
  7. This section comes into force at the end of the period of six months beginning on the day on which this Act is passed.’

Finally, NC38 states:

Duty to have regard to impacts on UK agriculture, agricultural land and domestic food production:

  1. A relevant authority must, when making policy, have regard to any potential impacts of that policy on the resilience of UK agriculture, agricultural land and domestic food production, and seeking to minimise any adverse such impacts so far as is reasonably practicable.
  2. In this section, a ‘relevant authority’ means –
    1. a Minister of the Crown;
    2. a relevant planning authority (under the meaning in section 81).
  3. In order to comply with the duty under this section, the relevant authority must have regard to –
    1. any impacts the proposal may have on agricultural production in the UK;
    2. any impacts the proposal may have on the area of land available for agricultural production in the UK, including in particular the area of grade 1 and 2 land available for production;
    3. any impacts on the genetic diversity of domestic livestock populations;
    4. the impact on farming in areas of natural constraints including land above the moorland line;
    5. the ability of agricultural producers in the UK to operate competitive businesses;
    6. any impacts of food security; and
    7. any other factor which appears relevant to the relevant authority.
  4. Nothing in subsection (1) requires a relevant authority to do anything (or refrain from doing anything) if doing it (or refraining from doing it) would be in any other way disproportionate to the impact on UK agriculture, agricultural land and domestic food production.
  5. This section does not apply to policy so far as relating to –
    1. the armed forces, defence or national security, or
    2. taxation, spending or the allocation of resources within government;
    3. Wales;
    4. Scotland; or
    5. Northern Ireland.’

Justifying her amendments, Villiers wrote:

Home building should be something that is done in partnership with local communities, not inflicted on them’, noting that rural areas feel increasingly like ‘we are under siege.’

Villiers further opined that ‘there is not a blade of grass or square foot of land which is not in danger of coming under the bulldozer’. Ultimately, the position of Villiers, and the near fifty or so Tory MPs who have signed her NC21 amendment, is surmised by her conclusion that:

we need positive solutions which deliver the homes we need in the right way in the right places; solutions which address cynical landbanking by oligopolistic developers which so often is the reason why permissions remain unbuilt; solutions which get empty homes back into use and which end perverse incentives to switch from long term home rentals to holiday lets; and above all, solutions which garner support from local communities.’[1]

Nevertheless, not all Conservative MPs are convinced. Simon Clarke, who was the Levelling Up Secretary during Liz Truss’ period as PM, condemned the amendments as counter-intuitive, predicting that their passage would irretrievably harm the electoral prospects of the party. Taking to Twitter, Clarke wrote:

If you want to see what the future of the Conservatives is when we don’t build homes, look at London. Our collapsing vote in the capital is at least in part because you can’t make the case for popular Conservatism if you can’t afford to buy, or even rent.

Still dissatisfied, Clarke went further and tabled a counter amendment:

NC90 states:

‘Onshore wind applications:

  1. Within six months of this Act coming into force, the Secretary of State must revise the National Planning Policy Framework in accordance with the objective subsection (2).
  2. The objective in this subsection is to ensure that guidance permits local planning authorities to grant onshore wind applications for the purposes of –
    1. installing new sites not previously used for generating wind energy; and
    2. repowering existing onshore wind applications.
  3. Section 78 of the Town and Country Planning Act is amended in accordance with subsection (4).
  4. In subsection (4A), after paragraph (c) insert-
    1. the development is for the purposes of installing new onshore wind sites not previously used for generating wind energy or for repowering existing onshore wind applications.’

Juxtaposing his amendment against those tabled by Villiers, Clarke dryly noted that

If we’re going to have some anti-growth amendments on the bill we might as well have some pro-growth ones too.’

Similarly, in a move which has underscored the precarious hold of the Government on backbench rebels, both Boris Johnson and Liz Truss have also indicated their support for Clarke’s amendment, joining the ranks of around 20 Conservative backbenchers and Labour MP Ben Bradshaw.[2]

It is important here to clarify that whilst it is the Speaker of the House of Commons who determines which amendments are selected for a vote, regardless of the outcome, the Government is deeply divided over its planning policy. The preservationist sensibilities of status-quo MPs are in dire contrast to the rapid growth aspirations of restless newcomer MPs. The divide, too, represents the competing priorities of the Conservative voter coalition, stretched between older, homeowning southerners, and working-age strivers in the Red Wall seats. The issue, fundamentally, is serious: the Centre for Policy Studies have concluded that the abolition of housing targets and the 5-year land supply test could result in a 20% fall in housebuilding (with higher estimates up to 40%), in a slump which could see 800,000 jobs in construction and related sectors lost.[3]

Regardless of intra-party conflict and considerations of electoral cost, if the Government truly wishes to level up and regenerate the country, then it cannot afford to go to war with the planning system. As with planning and politics, ‘A house divided against itself, cannot stand’.




Appendix – Provisions of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill

With its origins in the Levelling Up White Paper, the Bill contains a multitude of policies related to devolution, planning, infrastructure and housing. These include:

  • New and deeper devolution deals, including the creation of ‘combined county authorities’, powers for local authorities to change their governance model more quickly, and simplification of the processes for establishing and amending new and existing combined authorities.
  • New powers for local authorities, including the ability to hold high street rental auctions for vacant commercial properties and the ability to double the council tax rate on any homes left empty for longer than a year. Similarly, locally led Urban Development Corporations will be created with the objective of regenerating the local area and accountable to local authorities.
  • Planning reform including giving more legal weight to local plans; creation of National Development Management Policies on issues which apply in most areas; deployment of Local Plan Commissioners to support or even take over plan-making if local planning authorities fail to meet their statutory duties; powers for local planning authorities to prepare ‘supplementary plans’ where policies for specific sites need to be prepared quickly; provisions for groups of authorities to collaborate in producing a spatial development strategy for issues which cut across areas; creation of ‘neighbourhood priorities statements’ to allow parish councils and neighbourhood forums to guide local plans; and new ‘street vote’ powers for residents to bring forward proposals to extend or redevelop their properties to be put to a referendum of residents on the street.
  • Creation of a simple, mandatory and locally determined Infrastructure Levy, set as a percentage of gross development value – a change from the Community Infrastructure Levy which is based on floorspace – combined with a requirement for local authorities to prepare infrastructure delivery strategies.
  • Creation of the National Model Design Code so that locally informed design standards are created with full weight in making decisions on development, in conjunction with creating new categories of designated heritage assets so that scheduled monuments, registered parks and gardens and World Heritage Sites hold the same statutory protection as listed buildings and conservation areas.
  • Replacement of Environmental Impact Assessments with Environmental Outcome Reports, a clearer and simpler process for projects to be assessed against tangible environmental outcomes; similarly, Active Travel England – the government’s new adviser on sustainable transport – will become a statutory consultee.
  • A commitment to bring forward legislation to improve the NSIP regime, including through the creation of a fast-track consenting regime for priority cases.

[1] ConservativeHome, Theresa Villiers: The new Government must honour its promise to scrap housing targets that are set in Whitehall, 7 November 2022, https://conservativehome.com/2022/11/07/theresa-villiers-the-new-government-must-honour-its-promise-to-scrap-housing-targets-that-are-set-in-whitehall/

[2] The Guardian, Johnson and Truss join rebels against Sunak keeping new onshore wind ban, 24 November 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/nov/24/boris-johnson-and-liz-truss-join-rebels-against-rishi-sunak-keeping-new-onshore-wind-ban

[3] The Centre for Policy Studies, Giving Back Control, https://cps.org.uk/research/giving-back-control/