As protests go, showering someone in glitter is probably at the preferable end of hurled substances.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer shrugged off an unexpected flurry of sparkling speckles chucked his way by a protestor at the start of his party conference speech on Tuesday, ditched his jacket, rolled up his sleeves – and got on with the business of being his none-too-dazzling self.
In contrast to prime minister Rishi Sunak a week earlier, who dealt with the huge housebuilding headache by not mentioning it all, Starmer did at least grasp this bunch of nettles with a degree of determination.
“It’s time to build 1.5 million new homes across the country [with] new infrastructure, roads, tunnels and power stations,” Starmer pledged, adding: “We’ll get shovels in the ground, cranes in the sky, and build the next generation of Labour new towns.”
An obvious question rattled around the Property Week office as we listened to the speech: new towns, great, but where are you going to put them?
Helpfully, the notion of a new wave of new towns was a topic I’d discussed in depth, six months ago, with Urban&Civic chief executive Nigel Hugill.
He asserted that there were “a whole series of places” in the UK where a new town might take root. He added that his firm had identified 14 places for significant new settlements, adding that a similar exercise should not be beyond the wit of government.
Against that enthusiasm I should also set Hugill’s warning. “One of the problems with new towns is the timeframes are very long,” he cautioned, noting that Milton Keynes took 50 years to accrue 120,000 homes. So, perhaps not the quick fix it might seem.
A speedier resolution might lie in greasing the chugging wheels of the planning system. This could bring forward many smaller developments, which collectively might add more new homes at a greater overall pace than any amount of new towns.
Starmer described the planning system as a barrier that “blocks out all light from the other side”, stopping the UK “building roads, grid connections, laboratories, trainlines, warehouses, wind farms, power stations” and so on.
The Labour leader went on to say he would “bulldoze through” the barriers. Perhaps a poor choice of terminology, given how slowly bulldozers move.
Pocket Living chief executive Marc Vlessing contributed a pointed reaction, noting that Labour “are the largest party in local government and run the majority of our cities – they must start in earnest now at a local level to show that they really are up for this challenge”.
He added: “I’ve witnessed numerous pledges by various parties to modify the planning system. Regrettably, each one has fallen short. If Labour truly aims for impactful reform, they should engage with stakeholders who face the challenges of the planning system daily.”
Vlessing has a point. Delivering on shiny promises takes hard work and focus, long after the razzmatazz of conference season has been forgotten. But at least Starmer now has his sleeves rolled up.