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Boris to “Build, Build, Build” to bounce Britain back

30 June 2020

By Tim Le Couilliard, Newgate Public Affairs

Speaking in Dudley today the Prime Minister announced an “ambitious” post-Coronavirus recovery plan, headlined by a £5 billion “New Deal” and “Project Speed” reforms to the planning system. Big infrastructure projects are to be accelerated with new funding for schools, transport and broadband – all of which wouldn’t have looked out of place in last year’s Labour’s election manifesto. The Conservatives had promised a “levelling up agenda” and planning reform in its own election manifesto and so it is no surprise that Johnson chose Dudley, one of the former “red-wall” seats turned blue in 2019, to make his speech today. 

Johnson, who has long desired to be seen as a “Churchillian” leader, now wants to be “Rooseveltian”, echoing the former President’s approach to the economy following the Great Depression. FDR’s “New Deal” was seen as pivotal to the US’s recovery in the 1930s when he launched unprecedented spending programmes building public infrastructure. The detail on how the fund is to be spent has been partly announced, with critics already suggesting that £5 billion is too modest (note that the Coronavirus response is estimated to have cost £133 billion and counting already). Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, one of those critics, has said that Johnson’s “New Deal” is “not much of a deal and not much that is new.”

These pledges on spending, as well as the overall impact of the virus, will, of course, cost money. Johnson was asked on whether the government would stick to its manifesto promise to not raise the rates of income tax, VAT, or national insurance, to which he responded “wait and see”, with the Chancellor set to make a statement on the 8th July. 

The other announcement today intended to support the country’s recovery is “Project Speed”, a plan to amend the much-maligned planning system in the UK in order to encourage building and development. With the “most radical reforms since the Second World War” expected in a planning policy paper in July, four changes are likely to come into effect by September:

  • More types of commercial premises having total flexibility to be repurposed through reform of the Use Classes Order. A building used for retail, for instance, would be able to be permanently used as a cafe or office without requiring a planning application and local authority approval. Pubs, libraries, village shops and other types of uses essential to the lifeblood of communities will not be covered by these flexibilities.
  • A wider range of commercial buildings will be allowed to change to residential use without the need for a planning application.
  • Builders will no longer need a normal planning application to demolish and rebuild vacant and redundant residential and commercial buildings if they are rebuilt as homes.
  • Property owners will be able to build additional space above their properties via a fast track approval process, subject to neighbour consultation.

Johnson was speaking in Dudley, 55 miles away from Leicester, where the UK’s first “whack-a-mole” lockdown has been announced as there has been a spike in Covid-19 cases accounting for 10% of the total UK’s cases. Non-essential shops, that have been open for just a few weeks, have shut, and schools are to shut on Thursday (except for key workers’ children). The 4th July “liberation day” relaxation of restrictions on pubs and restaurants will also be postponed in the city.  All but essential travel to Leicester is being advised against and people in the city are to stay at home “as much as possible” with the police expected to enforce the measures. The measures will be in place for “at least” two weeks and remain under review.

Coronavirus aside, the government yesterday appointed a new National Security Adviser to replace Sir Mark Sedwill. The Prime Minister’s Europe Adviser, David Frost, is to take up the role in September and is to receive a peerage. The appointment has been met with obvious scepticism by former Prime Minister Theresa May (who appointed Sedwill) due to Frost’s lack of security credentials. She gave a strong interjection in the House of Commons today, and her look subsequently was rather stern.