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Comparing the Conservative and Labour manifestos on planning: Greenfield, brownfield, red field, blue field

Posted on 13 June 2024

Now the Conservative and Labour Party manifestos have been launched, it is time to see how both parties compare when it comes to planning. As always, the focus is largely on housing delivery and infrastructure. Neither party has said much in planning terms about the high street or industry or the many other things on which the planning system can also have a huge effect.


Labour has recognised the effects of constant policy change on growth and investment and promised stability but proposes to reverse recent changes to national planning policy straight out of the gate including, specifically, reintroducing mandatory housing targets. This is easily and quickly done as the original text can be reinstated without new drafting and is relatively well understood. The balance and tension between top-down and localism in planning has a long and varied history for both parties, with housing targets being particularly controversial in areas of high demand but significant constraints. The Conservatives make no mention of targets in their manifesto but promise 100,000 more homes than Labours 1.5 million commitment over the next parliament.

It will be no surprise that both parties see brownfield land as the key to housing delivery with both promising fast tracking for brownfield sites. The Conservatives announced proposals for Paris or Barcelona-like densities of housing in inner London and urban regeneration schemes. They promise to retain a "cast-iron" commitment to the greenbelt. Labour on the other hand acknowledges that brownfield alone will not be enough. Categorising releases of greenbelt under the Conservatives as haphazard and speculative, Labour promises a strategic approach to any releases from the greenbelt focusing on what they describe as lower quality "grey belt" and proposes golden rules (with little indication of what they might be) to ensure that communities and nature benefit. Neither party gives any nod of recognition of the vast swathes of the country that is neither brownfield nor greenbelt.

Labour hails back to the post-war successes to suggest a new generation of new towns across England and aims to strengthen cross border co-operation though the vehicle of existing and strengthened Mayoral and Combined Authorities. Additional planning officers are pledged and while there is a statement about local communities shaping housebuilding, Labour are not shy about confirming that they will step in to ensure houses are built. This includes further reform of compulsory purchase law. The Conservative answer is locally led development corporations in partnership with the private sector and investors for their urban regeneration projects and support for smaller builders. The Conservatives have ruled out what they claim is Labour's plan for a 'community right to appeal' which they say, in alignment with most planning professionals' view, would "bring the planning system to its knees". However, there is no sign of that proposal in the Labour manifesto. Only Labour speaks expressly of exemplary design.

On the more technical side, both parties mention the nutrient neutrality rules, with the Conservatives describing them as legacy EU rules and proposing their abolition and replacement with a one-off mitigation fee. Labour also suggests change to unlock homes but "without weakening environmental protections". Conservatives want to push CIL payments away from generic community projects and towards GP surgeries, roads and infrastructure needed to support homes. 

Finally, both parties make statements about affordable housing, with Labour confident that more can be squeezed out of planning obligations and focusing on building social rented housing, and the Conservatives renewing their Affordable Homes Programme. More than most other suggestions, the true effect of affordable housing proposals will be very dependent on the fine detail.


Labour is proposing a 10-year plan for infrastructure delivery with proposals to change the planning system to "forge ahead with new roads, railways, reservoirs, and other nationally significant infrastructure". The last Labour Government brought us the regime for Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs) and the proposal appears to renew commitment to this means of delivering big infrastructure, with new national policy statements to push them through while also ensuring communities' benefit. Contrary to the 'stability is needed for certainty' argument, it looks like the National Planning Policy will also get an infrastructure facelift.

The Conservatives have committed to updating the national policy statements regularly and include more specific details about streamlining the process, aiming for a reduction in time for infrastructure approval from four years to one. This includes removing EU rules and reform of the Environmental Impact Assessment process. Possibly most controversial is the proposal to curtail legal challenges which are "frivolous" or "don't have merit". The Conservatives also go into detail about specific funding proposals for infrastructure investment – much of which will be familiar from the announcements when the later phases of HS2 were cancelled.


There is little in the manifestos which is radical or surprising, with the main differences between the parties being questions around greenbelts and other targets. It is not unexpected that Labour is proposing a little more top-down control, even when granting new powers. The Conservatives standing firm on greenbelt and targeting former EU legislation and controls will also surprise no one.  Labour's exploration of "grey belt" release reflects what many in the planning sphere have been saying for a while and will be welcomed by many in the industry. Questions of second homes and short lettings of housing aren't mentioned by either party but in some constituencies it could be the main housing issue on the doorstep.

What is certain is that planning, and housing specifically, will remain a key policy battleground in the election and an interesting area of change whatever happens on the 4 July.        

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