Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill: Put your money where your mouth is

By Douglas Johnson

Yesterday saw the introduction of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. There’s a sense of deja-vu around the Bill – one disappointing set of election results and the ambition has dropped out of the government’s housing agenda. So far, so 2017.

The headline for the Bill is that it does not include the sweeping planning reforms mooted by the previous Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick MP.

The current Secretary of State, Michael Gove MP, has also conceded that the government will not meet its target of building 30,000 new homes a year.

The Bill instead includes a mixture of measures with the stated aim of boosting productivity, pay, jobs and living standards, spreading opportunities, and improving public services, thus restoring a sense of community and belonging, and empowering local leaders and communities.

These include the expected, such as the confirmation of arrangements for county deals, the technical, including measures to simplify plan-making and the replacement of Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), and the nakedly political – most notably, hyperlocal ‘street votes’ on local design codes.

Taken together, the changes proposed by the Bill may go some way to meeting the Government’s objectives. Local government leaders, for example, have welcomed proposals on devolution and the introduction of a new infrastructure levy. The simplification and digitisation of plan-making is also likely to be widely welcomed.

However, the changes are arguably piecemeal rather than sweeping. The Bill does little to address the pressing issue of local authority resourcing – anyone who has encountered the planning system recently will know the impact this currently has on its speed and efficiency. A recent report by the Institute for Government identified a precipitous decline in delivery of services at local authorities over the last decade.

It’s hard to see how local authorities can deliver ‘levelling up’ when many, despite heroic efforts, struggle to deliver their day-to-day functions. Any serious programme of reform aimed at empowering local authorities needs to consider how they can be given the financial freedoms and powers to make this a reality.

Planning lawyer Nicola Gooch has also noted that the Bill contains an unusual number of ‘Henry VIII’ clauses. These will allow ministers to amend or repeal provisions of the eventual Act using secondary legislation – avoiding the need to seek Parliamentary approval. This may be helpful for a government feeling pressure on housing and planning matters and this may offer a means of avoiding clashes with backbenchers on sensitive reforms. But it may also offer a way for ministers to quietly shelve or water down provisions in the Bill which encounter resistance – it will be important to keep an eye on the detail.