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Keir Starmer's Big Bet on Planning

Updated: May 18, 2023

Since the partygate scandal put Labour on top, Keir Starmer has pitched his party at the centre of politics. This has left some criticising the Labour leader for refusing to put clear blue water between him and the Conservatives.

That's changed on one issue; Starmer is drawing battle lines on planning reform and housing. To Labour, housing is not only an offer to younger voters, but a weapon against a fractious government.

Under the Truss cabinet, Local Dialogue briefed clients on Simon Clarke, a new kind of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Secretary. He broke the mould of standing between NIMBYs and YIMBYs. He clearly made an increase in homebuilding part of the government's growth agenda.

Michael Gove originally shared much of this view and started a set of planning reforms. However, Sunak and Gove faced a potentially humiliating NIMBY rebellion early in the new government, forcing them to scrap mandatory housebuilding targets.

Ever since housebuilding targets became mandatory, housing has been an open wound in the Conservative Party. YIMBY ministers in DLUHC have made this increasingly painful for the Conservatives. This has been clear for observers to see too, including those around Kier Starmer.

This left a wide opportunity for Starmer. Labour could appeal to younger voters locked out of home-ownership, and expose a paralysing fissure within the Conservative Party.

Many younger voters find themselves in the private rental market with high costs, poor conditions and the constant threat of eviction. These voters could respond very well to the promise of secure home-ownership.

In recent history, the Conservatives have boasted about being the party to offer this. In the face of Labour's promise to get building, this is a challenging pitch to make.

The government are beholden not only to backbenchers, but also threatened by disillusioned Tory voters in the ‘Blue Wall’. Sunak will be keen to avoid a repeat of the 2023 Local Elections or the Chesham and Amersham by-election. In both cases, opposition parties exploited voters' frustrations around development.

Starmer is gambling by betting on housing. Previous Labour leaders have gone after a youth vote only for it to fail to materialise. Labour HQ will be hoping that housing can earn them more than just the under-40s, but that it can hand them a divided and weakened Conservative Party too.


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