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View from the Street: Plan to fail? Labour’s housing challenges are great, but Scotland’s are even greater

Phoebe O’Carroll-Moran

Client manager

Labour has bet the estate on its ambitions to revamp the planning system. It’s a priority with good reason. Britain has a growth problem, and the prescription – in part – is more homes. 

Starmer and Reeves have made no bones about their ambitions. The pair plans to bring forth reform within its first 100 days at the top, sparking a bonfire of red tape and a building blitz across England’s green and pleasant land, to the tune of 1.5 million new homes a year. 

This is key to more than just our housing supply. The party’s planning project is the cornerstone of its economic agenda, promising the growth on which everything else hinges: tax revenues, restored public services, and prosperity. 

It’s a high-stakes game. Winning will demand ruthlessness and political honesty. But with a formidable majority and momentum behind it, the party may yet have the ingredients for success. 

So where does Scotland fit into this grand vision? 

No surprises here: our situation is no less parlous than England’s. Our recently declared housing emergency is evidence enough of that, as is our deplorable rate of new builds 

The SNP nodded to this through the introduction of the National Planning Framework 4 (NPF4) in 2021, which went some way towards reshaping the planning system in line with its liberal ethos. However, it failed to fix the essential problem, which is that no one can get anything built in Scotland. Instead, developments remain mired in Byzantine regulations, now with added affordability benchmarks and complex local frameworks. 

The question is whether Labour’s approach can provide a blueprint for a better outcome.  

For its part, the SNP has signalled its willingness to work with a Labour government on planning consents. A Scottish Labour government, come 2026, certainly would. But both parties have their respective weaknesses that could hobble their attempts. These come down to political momentum and cold, hard parliamentary numbers.  

Put simply, the reforms Labour proposes are not the kind that weak governments can pull off. Tarnished by years in power, the SNP is likely past the point of hope. Scottish Labour may have better prospects. However, Starmer holds the purse strings to their political capital. Anas Sarwar will therefore require him to make some big wins that can propel him through to ’26.  

It’s a difficult tightrope to walk, because there are dangers, too, if we are seen to lag behind. Our unpredictable policy landscape – rent caps and NPF4 being key exemplars – have set investors’ eyes wandering. If they see our southern neighbours rolling back the greenbelt, they may choose to vote with their feet.  

Make no mistake: Labour’s challenges here are significant. Planning reform demands the party succeed where previous administrations have failed – including those with a greater instinct for liberalisation. Moreover, Starmer will also need to level with the electorate (read “NIMBYs”) about the building site in their back yard.  

But if he does pull it off, Sarwar, and Scotland, must be ready to follow on his heels. If we don’t, England’s gain may be Scotland’s loss.