So, what does the government’s Levelling Up Bill include? And, more specifically, what does it have to say from a housing perspective?
What’s the background?
In January this year, then-Housing Secretary (and now recently returned Housing Secretary) Michael Gove unveiled the Government’s flagship Levelling Up White Paper, setting out a plan to transform the UK by ‘spreading opportunity and prosperity to all parts of it’.
Aside from Brexit, Levelling Up had been the key agenda point of the Boris Johnson Government, but it has faced criticism for being more of a slogan than an actual fully-fledged policy.
The White Paper informed the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, which started its journey through Parliament in May 2022 and gained some momentum in the final days of Johnson’s premiership. This momentum was then stalled when Johnson resigned and the short-lived Liz Truss experiment took place.
Since Rishi Sunak became PM and reappointed Gove as Housing Secretary, the Bill has been given a new lease of life but has also faced some notable challenges.
It’s currently at the report stage in the House of Commons. Once it passes this stage, it will need a third reading in the Commons before passing through the same five stages in the House of Lords and a consideration of amendments before it receives Royal Assent and becomes law.
The Bill is designed to create a robust framework for levelling up, providing the Government with a legal framework for the missions set out in the White Paper.
Its other main goals are to provide more powers to local leaders in England who want them, empowering local authorities to regenerate towns and cities and ‘restore local pride in places’, and improving the planning process – something which successive Governments have sought to tackle to speed up the home-building process.
More specifically, the Bill is also about the Community Infrastructure Levy, the imposition of the Infrastructure Levy, the compulsory purchase of land, information and records relating to land, the environment or heritage, the governance of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (which recently faced a high-profile governance scandal), and town and country planning.
Local communities placed at the heart of planning system
One of the biggest backbench revolts faced by Rishi Sunak so far has been regarding mandatory housebuilding targets, and the rebels very recently scored a win when it was announced that the Government had watered down its proposals for local targets.
An amendment to the Bill had been tabled by former Cabinet minister Theresa Villiers, with the backing of around 50 Tory MPs, in a bid to scrap central housing targets. This led to the Government pulling a vote on the matter for fear they might be defeated, even though Labour said they would lend them the votes.
Now the Government has seen off the backbench rebellion by revealing that housing targets will be advisory and a starting point with ‘new flexibilities to reflect local circumstances’.
In an official statement by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, it said the Government had outlined new measures to ‘strengthen commitment to building enough of the right homes in the right places with the right infrastructure’.
It also said that new penalties would be proposed for slow developers failing to build already-approved homes, while local authorities would be handed powers to promote brownfield development. There will also be a wider review to promote brownfield development, something Sunak is known to be keen on as he’s previously committed to a brownfield-first policy.
As well as the above, Gove has also called on the Competition and Markets Authority to consider carrying out a market study on housebuilding.
The Housing Secretary said: “If we are to deliver the new homes this country needs, new development must have the support of local communities. That requires people to know it will be beautiful, accompanied by the right infrastructure, approved democratically, that it will enhance the environment and create proper neighbourhoods.”
He added: “These principles have always been key to our reforms and we are now going further by strengthening our commitment to build the right homes in the right places and put local people at the heart of decision-making.”
What happens next?
The Bill still has a number of stages to pass before it becomes law and could face further amendments and opposition along the way, so it’s unlikely it will reach Royal Assent until the middle of 2023 at the earliest.
Although the Government is still committed to its very ambitious target of building 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s, the ditching of local mandatory housebuilding targets would suggest such a target is now dead in the water.
There are plenty of housing measures tied up within the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, so the property industry as a whole – from developers and planners to estate agents and landlords – will continue to take a keener interest than most in the progress of the Bill.