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News report: Uncertainty casts shadow over major schemes

Words: Huw Morris

Does the new government bode well for planning? There could be trouble ahead, finds Huw Morris

Amid the government’s contortions in the aftermath of the general election, what are the prospects for planning?

Several more prominent names were suggested to succeed Gavin Barwell, the planning minister who lost his seat and is now Number 10’s chief of staff, before Alok Sharma was unveiled. Who is he? 

An accountant with a background in corporate finance, he was Foreign Office minister for Asia and the Pacific and David Cameron’s infrastructure envoy to India. Sharma has pressed for infrastructure investment closer to home, notably improvements at rail stations in his Reading West constituency plus the extension of Crossrail. He has campaigned against “unsustainable development on green spaces” and to scale back housing on one local site. He supports Heathrow’s expansion and HS2 but has several times voted against measures to combat climate change.

"International financial markets have been volatile in the absence of the 'strong and stable' government promised by May'

Sharma will work with reappointed communities secretary Sajid Javid to implement the housing white paper, which received a lukewarm reception. While this generally aims to boost development, recent appeal decisions, the holding direction on Bradford Council’s local plan and December’s written ministerial statement put housing need behind neighbourhood plans and the green belt.

A key point amid Westminster’s agonising over Brexit – and for the built environment sector which sees free movement of labour within the EU as crucial to skills and growth – Sharma voted to remain in last year’s referendum, then supported Theresa May’s leadership bid because of her desire “for the many EU nationals who have chosen to make their home in the UK to have the freedom to remain here”. This is close to his heart as his wife is Swedish.

Uncertainty is casting other big shadows. International financial markets have been volatile in the absence of the ‘strong and stable’ government promised by May, prompting doubts over sources of investment for infrastructure. The most recent survey by the Civil Engineering Contractors Association of its members, which deliver major projects, shows orders dropping for the first quarter since 2013. There are considerable grumbles that a lack of clear leadership in Westminster on making vital decisions will entrench the downturn.

One major scheme under the spotlight will be the Lower Thames Crossing, which is backed by reappointed transport secretary Chris Grayling and could cost up to £6 billion. While supporting it, Labour has pledged to “ensure the decision-making process has been completely robust and represents the best value for money”.

Anti-airport expansion campaigners believe at least 31 of London’s 73 MPs openly oppose Heathrow’s third runway, with a majority of them ultimately voting against the scheme when it goes to Parliament next year. This is an awkward squad for a minority government.

This links in with air quality, top of new environment secretary Michael Gove’s in tray. Conservative plans have already been defeated twice in the courts. The government was forced to publish a new draft national air quality plan during the election campaign but environmental lawyers at ClientEarth say this is inadequate and the group is taking ministers back to court for a third time.

Gove, who will decide any Development Consent Order applications on wastewater or waste, has called for the Habitat Directive to be scrapped. He is unpopular in some circles for voting against measures to combat climate change and his bid as education secretary to scrap the subject from the curriculum. He too can expect a torrid time at the despatch box.