Taking to the stage in what could be his final party conference before an election, Sir Keir Starmer outlined his vision ‘to build a new Britain.’ Central to Starmer’s message were two contradicting themes – the dawn of ‘the age of insecurity’ and the perils it posed to working families, and the promise of a ‘decade of national renewal’ to restore prosperity and growth in Britain. Anchoring his mission within the parameters of Labour history, Starmer surmised the task ahead:
‘If you think our job in 1997 was to rebuild a crumbling public realm. That in 1964 it was to modernise an economy left behind by the pace of technology. In 1945 to build a new Britain out of the trauma of collective sacrifice. Then in 2024 it will have to be all three.’
Collectively, the Labour Party is readying itself for power, optimistic, if cautious, that a victory could be in sight. Nevertheless, Starmer and his Shadow Chancellor, Rachel Reeves, have publicly recognised that the party will inherit a moribund economy, with limited scope for spending and investment. Instead, the key to success is claimed to be reform and growth, particularly within infrastructure, planning, housing, and energy. Reeves even dubbed the strategy as ‘securonomics’ or ‘putting economic security first.’
The key takeaway for developers and industry is a determination from Starmer to shift decision-making on planning consent from local government to the regional level, such as Mayoral Combined Authorities. It is yet unclear how this mechanism would operate, though the implication is that regional bodies would be empowered with central government authority to progress developments which are deemed to be critical infrastructure nationally, even if this is at odds with the views of elements of the local population.
Starmer’s priorities of securing economic growth and national prosperity through renewal are certainly to be lauded, yet it remains to be seen whether a revitalised Labour Party will achieve the structural change that its leadership so clearly aspires to secure.
Reforming the planning system
Describing a ‘blockage’ which acts as a ‘barrier’ to building, Starmer used his keynote speech to take aim at the ‘restrictive planning system’ which served as an ‘obstacle to the aspirations of millions’. Labour, Starmer argued, would get Britain building and oppose efforts to block development. ‘A future must be built.’, Starmer insisted, ‘That is the responsibility of a serious government.’
Essential to achieving growth would be a focus on critical infrastructure, defined as ‘battery gigafactories, the clean British steel, the ports that can finally handle large industrial parts.’ Combined with stability and investment for researchers, investors, and innovators, from the sciences to the automotives industry, and a refocus on technical skills and education, the focus on critical infrastructure would, Starmer claimed, ‘attract new investment to our industrial heartlands’.
Expanding on a policy announced some months back, Starmer also confirmed that his government would allow development in the Green Belt. Starmer noted the inconsistencies of the blanket designation and listed how, in planning terms, the Green Belt included ‘disused car parks, [and] dreary wasteland.’ Coining a new political term, the ‘grey belt’, Starmer noted that ‘this cannot be justified as a reason to hold our future back.’
Reforming the planning system, and unlocking growth in key sectors, would therefore sit at the core of the Starmer project, predicated on the promise that ‘Our Labour era will instead unleash the ‘big build’.’ Underpinning this aim would be a strategy of partnership with the private sector, backed by a National Wealth Fund, and operationalised as ‘a genuine partnership’ as opposed to the ‘stand-aside state’.
The issue of planning reform was also tackled by Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Rachel Reeves, who pledged to remove the obstacles endemic to ‘our antiquated planning system.’ On critical infrastructure, Reeves promised a ‘once in a generation set of reforms to accelerate the building of critical infrastructure for energy, transport, and technology. To fast-track battery factories, life sciences and 5G infrastructure and to tackle the litigation which devours time and money before we ever see shovels in the ground.’ This would be achieved through the updating of all National Policy Statements (NPS) within the first six months of a Labour government, setting out clearly to developers what type of infrastructure would be prioritised and fast-tracked.
On community engagement, Reeves stated that a Labour government would tackle ‘unnecessary, egregious, and time-consuming litigation by setting clearer national guidance for developers on the engagement and consultation expected with local communities.’ It is likely that under a Starmer-led government, the expectations placed on developers to engage early and comprehensively with local communities will be higher and more prescriptive, with projects which do not meet certain standards for engagement being unlikely to receive planning consent. Likewise, to ensure community buy-in and to retain popular support for development, Reeves clarified that local communities which hosted critical national infrastructure would receive benefits, with a ‘menu of potential incentives’ including cheaper energy bills. The ‘Decade of Renewal’ is therefore likely to place greater emphasis on the social impact of infrastructure development, with developers becoming expected to cater their offering to local communities, with due regard being required for generating positive social, economic and environmental value as part of these projects.
Finally, to expediate decision-making at the local level, Reeves pledged to create 300 new planning officers to tackle the backlog of planning applications at Local Planning Authorities (LPAs). The party likewise noted that two thirds of LPAs do not have an up-to-date local plan, embedding further uncertainty. Reeves expounded that a Labour government would therefore work with local authorities to quickly draw up and agree new local plans. As some commentators have noted, LPAs are unlikely to receive more than 1 additional planning officer each, raising questions about the real-world impact of Reeve’s announcement.
Ultimately, whilst still a little vague on detail, Labour has confidently placed planning reform at the core of its plan to achieve the highest economic growth in the G7. In an interview with the BBC, Starmer tellingly stated: ‘we need to ensure planning goes up a level, so it is not localised’. Noting that individual MPs would want to stand up for residents within their constituency, Starmer nevertheless emphasised that ‘The role of government is to deliver on big projects’. It is consequently likely that Labour will seek to dilute the decision-making power of LPAs to reject planning consent, and instead focus on driving development from regional and national centres.
Housing and homeownership
‘Are you a Yimby?’. ‘I am, yes,’ Starmer replied, in an interview with the BBC, ‘I think that it’s very important that we build the homes that we need for the future’.
In his keynote speech, Starmer criticised the decline in home ownership and noted how the dream of buying a house had become ‘A luxury for the few, not the privilege of the many.’ To tackle the crisis, Starmer pledged that Labour would build 1.5 million new homes across the country, with the number of homes built per annum steadily increasing over the course of the Parliament. To realise this ambition, Starmer confirmed that Labour would ‘build the next generation of Labour new towns.’, in a policy inspired by the Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson governments of the 1940s and 1960s. In a Labour press release, the party envisaged the new towns as ‘new communities with beautiful homes, green spaces, reliable transport links and bustling high streets’, utilising state-backed companies and a new planning rulebook to encourage the development of Georgian-style townhouse blocks.
The key question for Starmer is enforcement and how a Labour government would overcome local opposition, which can frustrate and delay or even blockade housing development. Starmer confirmed that he would create new development corporations ‘with the power to remove the blockages’, in a throwback to the regional entities which drove local growth between the 1940s and 1970s. This approach, Starmer maintained, would tackle the root causes of slow housebuilding, listed as: ‘land-bankers sitting comfortably on brownfield sites’, ‘councils refusing to develop a local plan’, and ‘resistance from people who say – no, we don’t want Britain’s future here.’
Labour has consequently committed to push decision-making on housing further up the chain to ensure that localised opposition cannot act as a barrier to development. Mooted policies include further devolution for mayors ‘with stronger powers over planning and control over housing investment’, indicating the creation of regional zones to mandate development. Likewise, the party intends to introduce a ‘planning passport’ for urban brownfield redevelopment, with a fast-track approval process to ensure the delivery of high-density housing.
Further housing policy was forthcoming in the keynote speech delivered by Angela Rayner, Shadow Deputy Prime Minister and Shadow Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities, who likewise took aim at the ‘age of insecurity’. Emphasising that ‘a secure home, like a secure job, is a crucial foundation for a good life.’, Rayner announced that a boost in affordable and social housing would be at the core of Labour’s housebuilding agenda, with added flexibility in the Affordable Homes Programme.
Rayner also announced reforms to Section 106 orders, noting ‘we will strengthen the rules to prevent developers from wriggling out of their responsibilities’. This would be reinforced by the empowerment of local leaders to ‘stand up to vested interests in building new developments’, with the creation of ‘a specialist government Take Back Control Unit that will work with them to rebalance the scales.’
Finally, Rayner also outlined a series of policies tailored to voters living in the rental sector with aspirations to own a home, pledging to finally implement the policy of banning ‘no fault’ evictions, and to give first-time buyers ‘first dibs’ on new developments in their communities, backed by a comprehensive mortgage guarantee scheme for those unable to afford a deposit. This, together with structural planning reforms, would, Rayner proclaimed, ensure that Labour could confidently take the mantle of ‘the party of home ownership.’
Labour’s stance on housebuilding has, in the past year, emerged as a key policy area which the party intends to fight the next election on. Beyond pledges to boost housebuilding and homeownership, the party has indicated that it understands the primary blockage behind slumping housebuilding rates – local opposition. This has elicited a new narrative from Keir Starmer, with candid statements around the urgent need to force development from regional and national centres, despite the opposition of local residents. The policy is likely to prove divisive, but suggests a party determined to make fundamental and structural change to how housing is delivered. Interesting too, is the party’s focus on addressing the thorny issue of development in the Green Belt, which again puts a clear choice to the electorate between Labour and the Conservatives.
Clean energy and climate
On energy, Starmer framed the issue as one of opportunity verses complacency, describing the energy transition as a ‘gift to create manufacturing jobs the like of which we haven’t seen for decades.’ Listing the benefits as investment, half a million jobs, and the creation of publicly owned Great British Energy, based in Scotland, Starmer lauded the opportunity of net zero as a balm to heal and revitalise the Union and its economy.
Starmer also announced ‘a new effort to re-wire Britain.’, envisaging a future with ‘The National Grid moving faster – a lot faster.’ Labour subsequently set out plans to restructure and invest in the National Grid, described as ‘the single greatest obstacle to the deployment of cheap, clean power generation, and electrifying industry alike’. Pledging to deliver ‘the largest upgrade to national transmission infrastructure in a generation,’ Labour outlined their proposal to ‘launch a super-tender’ to procure the grid supply needed. This would open new grid construction to competitive tendering, with competition to build or co-build new grid connectivity with the support of GB Energy. This plan would, Labour contended, unlock £200bn of private investment and support 220,000 jobs each year between 2024 and 2035.
This approach was backed by the Shadow Secretary of State of Climate Change and Net Zero, Ed Miliband, who commenced his speech by referencing the ‘deeply dangerous climate and nature crisis’, and labelled Rishi Sunak’s decision to dilute net zero targets as ‘dither and delay’.’ Reiterating Labour’s commitment to double onshore wind, treble solar, quadruple offshore wind, and invest in nuclear, hydrogen, carbon capture, and tidal power, whilst insulating 19 million homes, Miliband continued that Labour’s energy revolution would manifest as ‘the greatest investment in homegrown energy in British history.’ Labour’s energy strategy would, Miliband confirmed, be codified in an Energy Independence Act, in a move designed to package Labour’s Green Prosperity Plan in the language of sovereignty and national security.
Castigating Britain’s failure to secure public ownership of energy, and instead offshoring the profit to French, Swedish, and Danish state-owned firms, Miliband pledged that ‘Under Labour, the British people will own things again, build things again, profit as a country from these investments again.’ Miliband also promised to inaugurate catalytic investment in the energy sector, with £1 billion of public money annually for GB Energy to develop local, renewable power, supported by tens of billions of private investments. Crucially, Miliband referenced how Labour envisaged the energy transition as a force of social justice; a ‘just and worker-led transition.’, which would revitalise ‘our industrial heartlands…our coalfield communities…our coastal communities…our oil and gas communities.’
Finally, beyond the speeches by Shadow Cabinet members, the conference also debated and voted on numerous motions related to Labour’s position on key issues related to climate change and the energy transition agendas. Motions included bringing key infrastructure, such as railways and energy (inc. National Grid’s electricity and gas networks), back into public ownership and focusing on public interests over private profits. There were also expressions of strong opposition to energy privatisation and the Conservative government’s undermining of critical infrastructure. These proposals, committing a Labour government to investing in public transport, particularly railways, for the dual purpose of reducing carbon emissions and supporting local communities, reiterate the party’s commitment to a greener and more inclusive future. The vision of transforming the UK into a clean energy superpower, achieving net-zero electricity by 2030, is underpinned by collaboration with the private sector and regulatory reforms.
The cornerstone of Labour’s approach to government are becoming increasingly clear – responding to the ‘age of insecurity’ by initiating a ‘decade of national renewal’, grounded in wide-ranging structural changes to Britain’s fractured planning system as a means of igniting economic growth.
Central to this approach is the view that decision-making must become less local and more strategic, putting the potential concerns of local communities within the context of an urgent need to build.
‘One of the problems we have is that planning at the moment is very, very localised.’, Starmer surmised: ‘There isn’t the ability to look across a wider area and say where would the best place be for this development, where could we have a new town?’ Implicit, then, is an acceptance that planning must become more regional, less local; more zonal, less piecemeal; more strategic, less reactive.
Nevertheless, this does not mean that the party intends to abandon consensual decision-making; Rachel Reeves confirmed that Labour would set out clear national guidance for engagement and consultation, with developers expected to consult comprehensively with host communities and to consider thoroughly what ‘potential incentives’ could be delivered to secure positive social value. This means that most developers ‘big asks’ are going to need to be met with ‘big offers’, offers to deliver critical infrastructure which supports their projects, offers of economic investment into local communities and offers of education, training and apprenticeship opportunities to help upskill the British workforce to help they make the most of this green revolution.
The bargain of a Labour government, then, is that whilst developers will be able to benefit from faster decision-making and more strategic support for development from government, they will likely be required to carry out deeper, more comprehensive pre-application engagement in order to improve collaboration with communities and, where possible, build consensus. If enacted, Starmer’s plans to usher in a ‘decade of renewal’ could represent the most significant reform of the planning system since the introduction of the Town and Country Planning Act in 1947.
The long march to the 2024 General Election has well and truly begun.
 Keir Starmer, Speech at Labour Conference, 10 October 2023, https://labour.org.uk/updates/press-releases/keir-starmers-speech-at-labour-conference/
 Rachel Reeves, Speech at Labour Conference, 9 October 2023, https://labour.org.uk/updates/press-releases/rachel-reeves-speech-at-labour-conference/
 Labour, ‘How’, not ‘if’: Labour will jump start planning to build 1.5 million homes and save the dream of homeownership, 10 October 2023, https://labour.org.uk/updates/press-releases/how-not-if-labour-will-jump-start-planning-to-build-1-5-million-homes-and-save-the-dream-of-homeownership/
 Angela Rayner, Speech at Labour Party Conference, 8 October 2023, https://labour.org.uk/updates/press-releases/angela-rayner-speech-at-labour-party-conference/
 The Guardian, Housing developers could override local objections under Labour, says Starmer, 11 October 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2023/oct/11/labour-keir-starmer-pledges-to-build-new-towns-utilising-grey-belt-areas
 Labour, Labour sets out plan to “rewire Britain” and build the clean energy grid the country needs, 8 October 2023, https://labour.org.uk/updates/press-releases/labour-sets-out-plan-to-rewire-britain-and-build-the-clean-energy-grid-the-country-needs/
 Ed Miliband, Speech at Labour Conference, 9 October 2023, https://labour.org.uk/updates/press-releases/ed-milibands-speech-at-labour-conference/