What directions might the new UK Prime Minister take for English planning and the historic environment?

In this article, CIfA’s Policy and Advocacy Manager Rob Lennox discusses what the candidates vying to be Prime Minister are saying about planning, and what it might mean for archaeology.

The Conservative leadership candidates have been revealing aspects of their proposed agendas as they vie to win the support of Conservative Party members, ahead of the final decision being reached on 5 September.

In the past week, both candidates have spoken about their approach to planning (in England), and while these statements do not necessarily provide full policy visions, they do hint at the underlying ideologies which may influence the direction that archaeology and heritage are carried on the tide of planning reforms.

At the end of this article you'll find links to a CIfA report which explains why the current planning regulations protecting the historic environment work and are needed to ensure sustainable outcomes from planning.

What are the candidates saying?

Liz Truss:

Currently the most likely candidate to be the next Prime Minister, Liz Truss has struck a familiar tone in her planning statements: planning is over-regulated, and she will remove the ‘red tape’ that is impeding development and growth.

She has proposed a plan for ‘investment zones’ which will have simplified planning regimes and new ‘low tax’ areas to ‘drive growth’. She would also use these zones to encourage new housing, drawing comparisons to Victorian era settlements like Bournville and Saltaire. Truss said that these regulation-light zones will be at the heart of her ‘vision for levelling-up.

Truss has also highlighted her desire to empower local communities – which manifests most clearly in the desire to hand councils the final say in how many houses they build, scrapping central government housing allocations. She has made similar noises about promoting brownfield land and densifying settlement in cities over releasing green belt – a position contrary to the one she took in her 2019 leadership bid when she proposed building a million homes on London’s green belt. This time around she’s also proposed that villages should be able to grow ‘by four or five houses a year without having to go through the planning system, so people can afford to live locally.

Rishi Sunak:

The central focus of Sunak’s statements on planning have been about green belt, proposing to use the forthcoming NPPF review to make it impossible for councils to alter green belt boundaries. Instead, the focus would be on brownfield land and urban densification.

Similarly to Truss, Sunak has also proposed to ditch the Conservative manifesto pledge to build 300,000 homes a year while ‘relaxing constraints’ around council requirements to demonstrate a five-year supply of land.

Sunak has also made comments about restricting onshore wind and solar farms in favour of offshore projects.

CIfA response

CIfA is pleased that neither candidate has indicated any intention to row back on the positive elements of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, which is continuing its passage through Parliament, despite the leadership campaign. We hope, therefore, that the provisions for statutory Historic Environment Records will pass.

However, it is with some trepidation that we, once again, read headlines about cutting red tape and relaxing regulation being the approach to future planning reform.

CIfA supports development on brownfield land and welcomes efforts to help the planning system deliver on the nation’s housing need and drive growth, but these approaches must be subject to proper planning controls to ensure that development is sustainable.

CIfA has published extensive evidence that shows how and why existing regulation is needed to enable planners to make informed decisions about managing cultural heritage assets sustainably – making development less damaging and identifying opportunities for wider heritage benefits. This means

  • ensuring that the impact of proposed development is assessed prior to planning permission being granted, and
  • ensuring tailored programmes of archaeological investigation are agreed where needed

At this point, neither Truss nor Sunak have explicitly mentioned archaeology or the historic environment as being areas where regulation should be relaxed, but when planning controls are removed, the protections that the planning system ensures can be – often inadvertently – trampled.

Our report Planning and archaeology: Evidence from the Archaeology and Planning Case Studies Project how and why the system works, contains information and analysis of 117 case studies exploring these issues. For more information and access to a database of illustrative case studies, click here.

How can CIfA members help?

It would be helpful if CIfA members in England could write to their MPs and share the CIfA report.

You may wish to ask whether your MP will support calls to recognise the need for proper planning controls that ensure that robust processes for understanding and managing the impact of development on the historic environment. Specifically, these protections must apply even for brownfield development (which land often has high archaeological value) and other development subject to relaxed planning controls (such as permitted development rights).

If you have a Conservative MP, they may also be asked to raise these concerns with their new leader.

MPs of all parties can also be asked to join the All Party Parliamentary Archaeology Group.

For more information on writing to your MP, see CIfA’s Advocacy toolkit.