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News analysis: May's election gamble

Words: Huw Morris

Kenny Rogers once sang about poker. Regular players of the game say it is all about the art of knowing when to hold them, fold them or raise the stakes. Theresa May has played some hand.

There is a myth the prime minister called a snap general election. True, her cabinet did not know until the morning of the announcement and neither did anyone else in the Westminster village. However, suppliers of key services to the government had been put on notice a fortnight before the announcement. Nobody picked up the signs because nobody was looking.

“While Theresa May’s stated intention was to provide greater clarity and stability by calling a general election, in the immediate term the move inevitably puts a question mark over policy and creates further uncertainty across the built environment,” says UK Green Building Council chief executive Julie Hirigoyen.

Sudden or not, the election announcement highlights two strands of challenges for planning, one of them procedural, the other the strangulating effect of Brexit.

The first is associated with purdah and the convention that no major or controversial decisions are taken in the run-up to a ballot. The most immediate impact is parliamentary scrutiny of the draft Airports National Policy Statement and who will chair the relevant committee. Delays look inevitable for at least one if not both of these. A decision is also due on election day on the Richborough Connection Development Consent Order. The tea leaves are unclear about whether this goes ahead on time or not.

All election announcements prompt a stampede by all professions and interest groups arguing that it should be a ballot about their concerns. In reality, the average voter pays no attention. Rightly or wrongly, most of the election campaign will be seen through the prism of Brexit. In reality, it is throttling many issues.

Some commentators see the election as an opportunity to remove uncertainty ahead of negotiations with the EU. This is highly optimistic, particularly when the agenda for various negotiations have yet to be thrashed out. Anybody concerned with the built environment will pause for thought if, to paraphrase another Rogers’ song, they see what condition their condition is in.

"Rightly or wrongly, most of the election campaign will be seen through the prism of Brexit"

Brexit is casting a giant shadow over many challenges. The housing crisis, skills shortages, investment in major development, infrastructure delivery and rising materials costs among many others were fiendishly complicated before Brexit. They are all the more serious now.

The canaries in the coal mine are not looking good so far. A survey of Royal Institute of British Architects members in February showed 61 per cent of respondents had seen projects delayed or put on hold as a result of Brexit, with 37 per cent saying schemes had been cancelled. For planners, that’s a lot of work not coming their way.

A cursory glance at various market surveys conducted by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) across construction, residential and commercial sectors in the past year reveals that while the shock over Brexit has abated, activity is either flat, hedging its bets or only tentatively playing its cards.

“Uncertainty continues to cloud the outlook and weigh on market sentiment,” says RICS parliamentary affairs manager Lewis Johnston. The election, he adds, does “very little to change that prognosis in the near term and, if anything, we are likely to see continuing deferral of major investment and hiring plans”.