Wednesday, 25 October

By Matthew Bennett, Managing Consultant at Inner Circle Consulting


From a world of no housing targets, abandoned Local Plans and anxiety about growth, to one in which the Government drives housing growth to boost the economy. If Labour wins the next election and keeps this promise, the environment that local government currently operates in will change radically – and fast.


Throughout ICC’s time at Labour Conference we heard over and over again about growth. The Labour Party knows that if it comes into power it needs to secure far higher levels of economic growth to boost living standards and to raise the money needed for its public service ambitions.


At the heart of Labour’s agenda is a remarkable boldness over housing. No longer the untouchable ‘third rail’ of British political life, it is to the current party of opposition a national challenge. Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves assert firmly they would wield it as a tool to unlock growth in the economy – Starmer even going so far as to tell conference and journalists alike that any local planning resistance would be “bulldozed.” Labour’s recent success in rural by-elections will only have emboldened this stance within the party’s hierarchy.


Labour is talking about winning a mandate for a  ‘decade of renewal’ – meaning it will be looking for fast results to keep voters onside. Right now, it will be looking across the country for cities, counties and councils that are laying the groundwork for growth – with power and money flowing to those areas that are ready to deliver this agenda. For leaders who have their eyes on the horizon and who want to prepare for this new agenda, there are three key considerations.


First, we heard at conference that housing growth will be directed to areas with a strong foundation for economic growth – ‘boosting the winners’, to put it in Labour-speak. In that context, areas that have a plan in place for growth will be in the strongest position to move into the fast lane for greater prosperity, power and opportunity. Putting the work in now to build your networks and relationships with anchor institutions in the public and private sector, and charting a clearly articulated vision for local growth, has never been more important. The UK’s Core Cities are already putting the work in to get themselves to the front of the queue. ICC worked with them and the RSA on the Urban Futures Commission – working through the processes and structures that need to be put in place to secure sustainable and regenerative growth.


Secondly, Labour put a big emphasis on infrastructure, learning the best lessons from abroad and aiming to reassure communities that might worry about shiny developments that nonetheless leave locals stranded. As we’ve found in our work with the Planning Advisory Service, London Boroughs & County Councils, this means having a clear understanding of what your infrastructure needs are, a clear strategy around how your places will prioritise and fund projects to meet these needs, using the financial levers available to you, and recognising that this will require working in partnership with developers or public sector partners to deliver them.


Thirdly, there was a lot of talk about gentle density and Georgian-style town houses. These walkable (whisper it) 15-minute neighbourhoods are going to be crucial to delivering housing growth alongside net zero commitments. They are also going to require thinking now about the kind of housing needed for the workforce required to support economic growth.


In Cornwall our work with the Council and local businesses to scope the kind of economic growth needed to close the gap in living standards has gone hand-in-hand with our work supporting major regeneration and the delivery of new settlements, without which growth will be impossible to secure. In both Surrey and South Essex, we brought County Councils together with Districts and Boroughs, providers, and Homes England to place housing at the heart of sustainable growth. We pride ourselves on partnering with place leaders from strategy through to bricks-and-mortar delivery, doing so at pace and in a way that transfers knowledge and capacity to our clients.


For Cities, Counties, Combined Authorities and Councils, the opportunity is there for the taking, if the work is put in now to lay strong foundations for growth over the coming months. Our experience in working in close partnership with leaders at every level of Local Government, from big cities to rural districts, has taught us that opportunity rarely knocks twice – and helping leaders to look up from the financial books to see what’s on the horizon is one of the most important services we can offer.