27th July, 2023

Is levelling up a Conservative priority again, and what should Labour do about it?

GK Associate Sam Tankard analyses the recent announcement from Levelling Up Secretary, Michael Gove, on the Government’s plans to boost urban regeneration and kickstart new development, and what we can understand from the Labour Party’s response. 

Michael Gove announced this week a long overdue relaxation of planning rules to boost urban regeneration, bringing life back into the Government’s neglected commitment to levelling up the UK. The plans include setting up more than a dozen new development corporations, that would be able to use compulsory purchase orders to boost building and attract investment, akin to the hugely successful regeneration of the London Docklands. It will also relax permitted development rights, making it easier for disused office buildings to be converted to residential, all of which should come as a welcome package of policies for developers, businesses, and aspiring homeowners alike, all keen to see the densification of key cities.

One of the flagship examples announced to bring forward new homes, is the proposal for a new Cambridge Urban Quarter. The Quarter is designed to couple gentle density seen in many European cities and parts of London, with improved landscaping and infrastructure, with the aim of unlocking investment in the city’s growth areas of life sciences and tech R&D. This is something the city has sorely missed out on over recent years, while international competitors like Boston have soared ahead.

Indeed, this set of policies is shrewdly targeted at voters most at risk of fleeing the Conservative Party to the Liberal Democrats, demonstrated by recent by-elections in Conservative heartlands. By focusing the message on urban development, it focuses any future housing development in building up density in cities rather than urban sprawl into green space. This combines neatly with Sunak’s recent commitment to protecting the Green Belt around cities, and criticising Labour for the opposite.

However, the limitation of the Green Belt poses a much bigger problem for all stakeholders, having traditionally driven housebuilding in out-of-town developments instead of expanding cities themselves, therefore often encouraging urban sprawl further.

If properly implemented with the ambitious devolution agenda that has been set out, including 20 regeneration zones and investment zones, we could see the investment into the built environment required to really level up our industrial centres. Sunak will also hope it appeals to the middle of the road millennial voters who feel they are being priced out of cities, as well as those who oppose new homes due to lack of infrastructure.

What is Labour’s response?

This presents a significant challenge to Labour, who themselves are being urged to embrace a new levelling up agenda, which has so far been absent from Starmer’s Five Missions. However, Shadow Levelling Up Secretary Lisa Nandy has openly committed to radical planning reform to boost building, including building on the Green Belt, restoring housing targets, and making social housing the second highest form of tenure. In response to Gove’s plans, Nandy has criticised the Government for offering more empty promises, and for overseeing housebuilding which is at the lowest rate since WWII. Importantly, however, levelling up goes beyond just housebuilding, and revolves significantly around investment into local public services, prioritising education and early years, as well as attracting and supporting businesses in growth areas.

Therefore, Labour needs to look to capitalise on the separation created between Conservatives and Labour on the issue of Green Belt development and be braver to articulate what is possible from a comprehensive levelling up programme. This programme must reflect the full suite of issues that comprise sustainable and equitable levelling up. This will not only present a more ambitious levelling up agenda that delivers on chronic housing supply issues, but also brings disillusioned renters with them.