All eyes will be on Labour during the coming week, but there is little so far to get architects and built environment professionals excited, writes Ben Flatman

Ben Flatman

Ben Flatman

We are living in deeply uncertain times, with widespread anxiety about the future of the UK economy and the global environment. Sadly, this week’s Conservative conference provided little reassurance that Rishi Sunak or his party have much idea of how to address these pressing challenges.

In the midst of a long-gestating housing crisis and against the backdrop of war in Ukraine and growing evidence that global warming is out of control, it felt surreal to hear Sunak dedicate a third of his speech to a smoking ban. That Sunak’s headline “long-term” announcement was the cancellation of the UK’s largest infrastructure project, speaks volumes about the malaise in which the country now finds itself.

For those in construction and architecture, there was little substantive content regarding a strategy for growth or the green transition. Sunak claimed that the £36bn “saved” from the Birmingham to Manchester HS2 line would be ploughed into “hundreds” of smaller transport projects. Yet the industry is all too aware that announcements such as these take years to reach implementation. 

There is also, inevitably, a growing sense that whatever projects this government commits to one moment, are liable to be cancelled the next. At least one transport project that Sunak referenced – the ‘dualling’ of the A1 – has been promised by every Tory prime minister at least as far back as David Cameron. Many of the others had also already been trailed or previously committed to. 

What are most starkly absent are the clear policy frameworks on planning, housing and infrastructure that business needs in order to invest

The announcement of the new Advanced British Standard to combine A levels and T levels may have an underlying rationale, but the reality for those working in education, and for pupils, will surely just be more chaos and uncertainty.

T levels were only introduced in 2020 as a qualification of direct relevance for those interested in a career in construction. Now they are due to be phased out by 2034. Is this really the right way to embed vocational qualifications for the long-term? 

Sunak’s recent attacks on 20mph speed limits (which are being widely implemented by Tory councils) and 15-minute cities, betray a general slide in Tory rhetoric towards culture-war narratives and straw-man conspiracy theories. Bereft of serious new ideas to address its underlying structural challenges, Britain feels increasingly directionless.

What are most starkly absent are the clear policy frameworks on planning, housing and infrastructure that business needs in order to invest. It is hard to tell whether the constant churn in housing ministers (15 since 2010) is the cause or just another symptom of this government’s terminal confusion.

So, with the prime minister’s speech acting as an all-but-open admission of his party’s intellectual exhaustion, the attention must inevitably turn to Labour. And yet there seems to be little currently on show from Keir Starmer to suggest the opposition has much more in the way of ideas for the built environment and wider economy.

Prior to the 1997 election, when Labour swept to office for the first time in 18 years, the party had at least made the effort to speak to the architectural and built environment sectors. As early as 1992, the then shadow minister for the arts, Mark Fisher, had co-authored with Richard Rogers A New London: Two Views, which helped to map out many of Labour’s post-1997 policy ideas for the capital and cities in general.

Labour itself seems to have little awareness of the centrality of the built environment to addressing so many pressing issues

Fisher went on to become Tony Blair’s first arts minister and to work with Rogers on the Urban Task Force, which produced the vitally important report Towards an Urban Renaissance, published in 1999. The creation of CABE in 1999 was another direct outcome from this work.  

Deputy prime minister John Prescott became an important champion in driving this agenda forward and also commissioned the influential Egan Report that came out of the parallel Construction Task Force.

The last Labour government certainly did not get everything right on the built environment. Its failure to properly address housing has contributed to the current crisis, although the housing targets it set for local authorities (and which Starmer has committed to reintroducing) did arguably move things in the right direction.

Labour’s decision to keep Margaret Thatcher’s ban on new council housing throughout its 13 years in power was inexcusable, and it is to Theresa May’s lasting credit that she overturned this perverse policy during her otherwise inglorious period in Downing Street.

The lack of built environment expertise and policy from today’s Labour frontbench is concerning. Architecture lacks a figure of Rogers’ status and political savvy to help inform the party’s direction.

But Labour itself seems to have little awareness of the centrality of the built environment to addressing so many pressing issues – whether it be housing, climate change or economic growth.

The danger is that Labour comes into office in 2024 with little more than a set of targets for housing, and no clear strategy in terms of how government can help facilitate the creation of vibrant and sustainable places to live. Lisa Nandy has floated the idea of building on more of the green belt, which will doubtless please the volume housebuilders, but without a narrative around quality of place, the danger is that it becomes just another licence for more soulless urban sprawl wreaking further havoc on the environment.

One mistake that Labour should try and avoid is to sweep away everything the Conservatives have done

Architects and the built environment industry need to hear a lot more from Labour about how it intends to meet housing needs, improve the planning process and help to improve the quality of new and existing communities. And although he is highly unlikely to resurrect the HS2 line to Manchester, Starmer needs to set out how Labour will develop a genuine long-term infrastructure pipeline that enables the industry to invest with confidence. 

One mistake that Labour should try and avoid is to sweep away everything the Conservatives have done. There is much in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill that Labour should see as useful.

Design codes and street votes are two Tory innovations that could help to deliver more and better housing during the first years of a new Starmer government. Labour would be wise to embrace some of these ideas, rather than waste its first term of office wiping the slate clean in a fit of pique, as the Lib-Con coalition did in 2010.

This of course assumes that Labour is all but sure of winning the forthcoming general election. But, given the party’s unrivalled ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, nothing should be taken for granted.

And unless Labour can actually offer a more aspirational and inspiring narrative than its current promise of more orderly managed decline, perhaps it does not really deserve to win a majority either.

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