Amid uncertainty around commitments to net zero and infrastructure investment, the opposition set out its stall for the coming election. Daniel Gayne and Thomas Lowe report



Source: Daniel Gayne

Shadow housing minister Matthew Pennycook speaking at a packed housing fringe late on Tuesday afternoon

There was a feeling going into this Labour conference in Liverpool that, after the chaotic fireworks of last week’s Tory conference, it could be a rather dull affair.

In actual fact it was anything but, with the party finally announcing a suite of policies substantial enough to be considered a governing agenda as it sought to answer the question ‘why Labour?’.

It was an unusual situation for a party in opposition – the tradition being that the party in Downing Street have the final say in conference season – and the difference between the two conferences was stark.

While the Conservative’ event did not even make use of the biggest theatre at its Manchester Central venue, Labour’s conference sprawled out of Liverpool’s ACC and across a range of venues across the city’s docks. There were reportedly more than 10,000 attendees, including a large number from the business world.

>> Read more: Starmer blasts Tory flip-flopping as he pledges ‘to build a new Britain’

At a reception organized by the National House Building Council, shadow climate change minister Kerry McCarthy neatly summed up the interest in the conference. “I think the next few days is going to be really exciting and I think that is partly because people think we might well be in government next year and are very interested in what we might have to say and what we will do when we get there,” she said.

YIMBYs ascendant as Starmer sets out plans to build new towns

After a Conservative conference where the prime minister and housing secretary barely mentioned housing at all, there was some joy among housing sector attendees in Liverpool that they appeared to have been given top billing by Labour’s leadership.

A number of fringe events featuring shadow housing minister Matthew Pennycook were standing room only and the sector was treated to major announcements by Angela Rayner – the new shadow housing secretary – shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, and Keir Starmer himself. The bottom line was a commitment to oversee the biggest boost in affordable and social housing delivery by strengthening section 106 agreements, a fast-tracked planning process for sectors of priority growth and a slew of new towns.

Labour’s YIMBY contingent were in jubilant mood even before many of the conference announcements, holding a boozy reception over at the Hilton Hotel. Introducing the event, Andrew Western, the (relatively) new MP for Stretford and Urmston celebrated the way the party had “moved massively” on housing in recent years toward a more firmly pro development perspective. There were suggestions among local Labour leaders at the event that councils should have temporary powers to suspend Right to Buy and that the party should back a land use audit – while neither of these are policies the party has so far embraced, it does seem as if the YIMBYs broadly have the ear of the leadership.


Source: Daniel Gayne

NEC member Abdi Duale speaking at a pro-YIMBY event on the Labour conference fringe

Abdi Duale, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee who went as far as to criticise the party’s decision to block nutrient neutrality reforms, brought his speech to a close by saying it was his ambition to make NIMBYism a “shameful thing”. Matthew Pratt, chief executive of housebuilder Redrow, spoke last at the event. Having heard what the preceding speakers had to say, he joked: “I wasn’t sure if I had died and gone to builder heaven”.

While there was enthusiasm among housing sector attendees at the prospect of planning reforms, some felt they did not go far enough. Andy Taylor, group planning director at Vistry, said it was a “step in the right direction” but that he needed to see detail.

“There is some good talk about potential big projects [but] they are not going to do them overnight,” he said, explaining that there was a need for immediate reform, including around environmental policies and presumptions in favour of planning approval. “There are a lot of houses are delayed because of certain issues – whether that is nutrients, whether it is other things,” he said. “That is not a carte blanche to trample on the environment, but there are solutions that are bringing people together and there are solutions that can be unlocked now that aren’t being done.”

Read more: Vistry’s pipeline ‘stuck’ due to second staircase design uncertainty, director tells Labour conference

Read more: Industry broadly welcomes Starmer’s housebuilding plan

Show me the money, say Reeves critics

Whether such an ambitious plan can be brought forward with any kind of speed without major public sector involvement is the big question. That would be expensive and Rachel Reeves has been happy to sacrifice big commitments for the sake of cutting a thrifty figure. In her conference speech, the shadow chancellor put forward a new fiscal lock, which would guarantee in law that any government making major tax and spend changes would be subject to an independent forecast from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR).

In a packed fringe event organized by the Tony Blair Institute, Reeves celebrated the fact that the OBR received a cheer when she mentioned it in the conference hall. She compared Labour’s economic plan to Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, but skirted the question when it was pointed out that the USA’s policy came with major new taxation and spending. At an IPPR fringe event on the public finances, IFS director Paul Johnson said: “The Labour policy of £20bn of additional green investment will still keep [investment as a fraction national income] on a downward path. It is really important to be clear that Rachel Reeves’ commitments actually keep investment on a downward path relative to where it is at the moment”.


Source: Daniel Gayne

Rachel Reeves speaking to Baron Jim O’Neill, former chief economist for Goldman Sachs, at an event organised by the Tony Blair Institute

James Prestwich, director of policy and external affairs at the Chartered Institute of Housing, was not surprised by the lack of fiscal commitments. “There isn’t a lot of money going around and Labour are reasonably thinking that they need to appear to be a fiscally responsible government,” he said, reflecting on the already high level of taxation and inflated rates for borrowing. Addressing the party’s housing announcements more broadly, he said it was “positive” and a move in the right direction, but would not be enough to solve the housing crisis.

“When Starmer first started talking about his five pillars it wasn’t immediately apparent where housing fit into that,” he said. “But what they have been at pains to talk about is that housing is so important and so structural that it underpins and feeds into each of those pillars. So I am a lot more reassured now than I was at the time Starmer first started to talk about those pillars”.

However, L&Q’s chief executive was not convinced by claims that there was not enough money. Fiona Fletcher-Smith said she had agreed with one thing Liz Truss had said during her short stint in Downing Street, which was that Treasury orthodoxy needed to be changed. ”I don’t buy that there isn’t enough money. There is money, we just need to spend it in a different way,” she said. “The Treasury regards building housing as national debt. We are building assets, we are building people’s homes, we are building something that gives people safety and shelter they need – so lets change that bit of the orthodoxy”.

No u-turn on HS2, with Reeves focused on keeping down major projects costs

Perhaps predictably, there was no dramatic commitment to reverse Sunak’s cuts to HS2, and the number of times the phrase “salted the earth” passed the lips of speakers at transport fringes is an indication of why.

Industry advocates of high speed rail appear to have already given up on seeing the second leg built any time soon, and have moved on to demanding that the hybrid bill be delivered and routes safeguarded to ensure that Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPP) can be delivered as a priority and future high speed routes remain an option.

Ex-shadow chancellor John McDonnell backed the protection of HS2 sites, telling a fringe event that the party should make it “absolutely publicly clear now that we will nationalise those sites and bring them back […] and in that way secure the route”. Elsewhere on the conference fringe, Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham called for the original pre-covid plans for NPP to be built in full, funded partly by a land value capture mechanism. Speaking at the same event, shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh blamed Tory “incompetence, indecision and weakness” for the current state of the project.

But when it came down to it, the most substantial thing offered by senior figures in the national party was the shadow chancellor’s announcement, in her conference speech, that the party would commission an independent expert inquiry into HS2 and a re-commitment by Haigh to build Northern Powerhouse Rail in full.

Reeves’ decision to have her shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Darren Jones, review every other major government capital project “line by line” will re-assure the industry that the oppositon will have a solid plan for investment by the time the election rolls around, but raises the question of whether support for some costly projects could be withdrawn by a Labour government.

‘Speed ahead’ on net zero says Starmer as Miliband announces energy independence plan

Net zero pervaded almost every fringe event at the conference as MPs and activists discussed how Labour could stay on the right side of history following Sunak’s decision to water down a raft of key climate targets last month. A highlight of Starmer’s speech was his dramatic increase of volume when he announced Labour would “speed ahead” with its climate ambitions  - although the party will not reverse Sunak’s decision to weaken the phase out of gas boilers, which Reeves said was never thought feasible by the Labour front bench.

But the party has made a series of punchy commitments on climate, including setting up a state-owned energy supplier called Great British Energy. Ed Miliband, the shadow secretary of state for cliamte change and net zeroenergy security, was in a bouyant mood as he announced the plans. ”If you look around the world you’ll see that hose countries that have power succeeded in not just getting the power but getting the jobs have that domestic national champion,” he said. “Some people will tell you we don’t have public ownership of our energy assets in Britain. We absolutely do. It is state owned public ownership from abroad.”

Labour is also promising to launch a dedicated plan to retrofit 19 million homes in the UK, which would be in stark contrast to the piecemeal efforts by the Conservatives in recent years to encourgae households to improve their energy efficiency. ”It’s been absolutely hopeless under the Tories, ever since David Cameron said ‘cut the green crap’. Remember that? Personally I think it was about a crap government rather than cutting the green crap. We can absolutely do this,” said the former Labour leader.

Starmer has also promised to quadruple offshore wind by 2030, a bold target given the UK already has among the most of the turbines in Europe. Asked at a fringe event on net zero skills if the goal was feasible given Labour would only be able to get going in early 2025, assuming a late 2024 election, EDF renewables chief Matthieu Hue said he “hoped so” but the party could not afford to waste any time. Labour MP Meg Hillier, chair of the public accounts committee, took this opportunity to interject and say ”One of the thing about targets is we’re now encouraging whitehall to avoid definite dates, actually a range of dates is much more realistic”.

Despite this, Hillier did say that a Labour government would do a much better job than the Tories in sticking to longterm plans, a common critiicism among businesses which are now nervous about investing in net zero tech amid so much chopping and changing from the current government. “What we’ll see in the labour government in a year’s time is certainty and clairty on the direction of travel,” she said, although she made no mention of the speed of travel.