Bills include enabling legislation for the creation of Great British Railways and construction of the HS2 railway between Crewe and Manchester, delivering further post-Brexit procurement reform and giving local authorities more power to bring empty premises back into use.
The creation of Great British Railways is part of a wider Transport Bill designed to enable efficiencies and economies of scale across the rail sector, “which is currently difficult to achieve in today’s fragmented system,” the government says.
High Speed Rail (Crewe – Manchester) Bill will give outline planning permission to deliver the final stage of the High Speed 2 network (final, now that the Leeds leg has been scrapped).
The Procurement Bill will “create a simpler and more transparent system that better meets the country’s needs, rather than being based on transposed EU directives,” we are promised. Public sector buyers will be given more freedom to negotiate with suppliers and determine their own buying process that best suits them. The government says that the legislation will make it easier to bid for public sector contracts, especially for small businesses, and enable smaller contracts to be restricted to UK suppliers, as permitted by World Trade Organization rules.
Despite continuing expressions of a desire to cut red tape, the government plans to impose a requirement on businesses turning over £36m or more a year to add yet another boiler plate to their annual report. The Modern Slavery Bill will require such companies to publish an annual modern slavery statement declaring the steps they have taken to prevent exploitation in their operations and supply chains.
Giving local authorities more power to bring empty premises back into use forms one of the central plans of the wide-ranging Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. Previously proposed planning reforms brought forward by Robert Jenrick have been abandoned in the face of opposition from within the Conservative Party and among its voters. In its place come proposals to keep all the difficult decisions with local authorities. They will be given powers to instigate rental auctions of vacant commercial properties in town centres and on high streets to get them brought back into use. There is also to be reform of the system of developers funding local amenities in return for planning permission for (often unrelated) developments, with the creation of a new, locally set, non-negotiable infrastructure levy. This Bill will apply to England and Wales only.
The UK Infrastructure Bank Bill will “enshrine the bank’s objectives and functions in legislation to ensure that it will be a long-lasting institution with a clear policy mandate to support economic growth, including at a regional and local level, and the delivery of net zero”.
The Energy Security Bill enable the extension of the price cap beyond 2023, and it will regulate the heat networks sector, via Ofgem. It will also enable the UK’s first large-scale hydrogen heating trial.
Richard Beresford, chief executive of the National Federation of Builders, said: “Construction will be delighted to hear that local procurement processes are being reformed to help SMEs, Levelling Up will focus on employment and regeneration, and regulatory reforms for business and on EU policy are coming. It is also good to see the government recognise that without greater powers, east to west high-speed rail will not get off the ground.
“However, planning reform, which is key to Levelling Up, didn’t offer anything on housing supply or to builders but instead concentrated on resident involvement and greater local powers. Similarly, despite the mention of an Energy Bill, social housing and the Infrastructure Bank, planning, which enables these ambitions in practice, was not mentioned alongside them.”
He concluded: “The Queen’s Speech sets out an agenda for change but does not identify the complexities of getting there. Many of the announcements made today already sit within our vision of Levelling Up and supporting British business, so we will be working hard with the government to help them understand how construction and planning can, does and is hindered from meeting their lofty and welcomed ambitions.”
Brian Berry, chief executive of the Federation of Master Builders, said: “With serious and widespread economic uncertainty on the horizon, this year’s Queen’s Speech marked another missed opportunity for the government to set out a credible plan to green our homes for the future. There remains no credible plan to decarbonise our nation’s existing housing stock. While a 0% VAT rating on energy efficient home improvements was a step in the right direction at the chancellor’s most recent budget, this measure alone cannot achieve the level of decarbonisation required to meet net zero by 2050. At a time of increased living costs, the majority of homeowners do not have sufficient disposable income to consider these costly energy efficiency home improvement projects, even with a VAT reduction. Forward thinking is an absolute must by government – expenditure now to tackle energy inefficient homes, using a fabric first approach, will lower bills and reduce energy consumption. This is a long-term endeavour, which unless we see commitment today will leave houses inefficient for some decades. Any funding of new heating technology like heat pumps will be useless, as homes will not be able to fit them being too draughty and leaky. We continue to campaign for a national retrofit strategy, which lays out plans for funding coordination and incentivisation for builders and consumers alike when it comes to improving the energy efficiency of homes.”
On planning and housing, Brian Berry said: “It was good to see a renewed focus, through the government’s Levelling Up Bill, on planning reform. Small, local housebuilders have been producing fewer and fewer homes for decades, with those in the market facing significant barriers to their work. In the 1980s, 40% of new houses were delivered by SME housebuilders; this figure now sits at a mere 12%. Planning has long been an issue for smaller housebuilders, with 62% of FMB members saying recently reporting that it’s making it harder for them to build homes. Greater investment in local authority planning teams would add capacity and enable faster turnaround times of applications, reducing delays and easing the strain on resources. Considering today’s commitments, I hope to see significant improvements to reverse the decades-long decline of SME housebuilders. These local building firms play a vital role in their local areas, employing school leavers, building good quality homes in the local vernacular and reinvesting their success back into their communities.”
On the topic of town centre regeneration and interventions on empty units, British Property Federation chief executive Melanie Leech said: “We fully support government’s ambitions to drive local growth and revitalise town centres but political gimmicks such as compulsory rent auctions are not the solution, and will deter – rather than encourage – investment into the areas where it is most needed.
“No property owner wants their premises to be empty. In our experience, property owners are willing to do zero-rent deals to avoid boarded up shopfronts but the burden of business rates and other occupational costs mean it is still unviable for many small and independent businesses to trade from town centre premises.
“This is the moment for a system change in how we approach town centre regeneration. This means fundamental reform of the business rates system and more creative and sustainable solutions, such as the BPF’s proposal for ‘Town Centre Investment Zones’ which would accelerate regeneration through a combination of tax and community incentives, planning freedoms and public-private partnerships.
“The property sector is a key partner for government in levelling up the UK economy and we are ready to work with ministers and with local leaders through this session to find new and sustainable solutions.”
On the introduction of an infrastructure levy, she added: “The aim of simplifying the planning system by introducing a standard infrastructure levy is a laudable one, however, the government should be aware that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work across all areas of the UK and risks turning off investment in the areas where regeneration is most needed. We urge government to work with the industry to develop the detail of the new levy and to adopt a pilot approach to make sure that it works in practice and not just on paper, to support the delivery of homes and sustainable communities across the country.”
Stephen Beechey, group public sector director at Wates Group, said: “We welcome the Queen’s Speech today including the announcement of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill which will give local leaders the power to breathe new life into high streets. As a national business working on projects for both the public and private sector, we have extensive experience in delivering regeneration projects, from building net zero schools to developing energy efficient, affordable homes. We welcome this Bill as it will enhance our ability to deliver Levelling Up across the UK and regenerate communities.
“We are also pleased to the see the government is continuing to push forward with the Procurement Bill. As a lead contributor to the Construction Playbook, this is a positive step ensuring procurement across the public sector is aligned to the highest standards.
“While we support much of this legislative programme, we would like the government to go further and give urgent consideration to a nationwide domestic energy efficiency programme – something that would play a significant role in addressing current concerns around energy security, energy bills and the climate crisis.”
Cllr James Jamieson, chairman of England’s Local Government Association, said: “Over the last decade, England has taken steps towards greater devolution, but areas outside our city regions have remained stuck in the ‘devolution slow lane’ and the UK remains one of the most centralised countries in the democratic world. There is an urgent need to turbo charge the speed at which we are devolving powers to local areas so we are pleased that the Government has used the Queen’s Speech to make good on its commitment to offer all of England the opportunity to benefit from a devolution deal by 2030.
“Turning levelling up from a political slogan to a reality will only be achieved if councils have the powers and funding they need to address regional inequality, tackle concentrations of deprivation and make towns and communities across England attractive places to live, work and visit.
“To deliver on levelling up ambitions and ensure councils can deliver the right types of homes in the right places with appropriate infrastructure, a local, plan-led system is integral. It is good to see that any new Infrastructure Levy will be set at a local level, and we want to work with government to ensure that it is a success and can deliver more affordable housing and infrastructure contributions at a local authority level than the existing systems for developer contributions.
“Empowering councils to bring vacant properties back into use is also an encouraging step. National permitted development rights, allowing conversion of offices, shops and restaurants into houses without the need to provide any affordable homes or infrastructure funding, also need to be removed so councils can ensure the right homes are built in the right places, and deliver on local ambitions to revive and reimagine our high streets and town centres.
“As well as ensuring that existing homes are high quality, energy efficient and safe, building new, high-quality council homes has to be a national priority. This needs to include urgent reform of the right to buy scheme to allow councils to be able to keep 100% of receipts from sales of homes and the ability to set discounts locally.
“Councils and the LGA look forward to working with parliamentarians to shape the proposed legislation as this Bill is brought forward.”
Crispin Truman, chief executive of the countryside charity CPRE (formerly the Council for the Preservation of Rural England), said: “The government seems to be learning from a decade of planning disasters. Too often we have dug up the countryside for unaffordable, unattractive and unpopular identikit homes. And we have not done enough to regenerate our towns and cities where housing need is greatest. The system has been loaded in favour of developers at the expense of communities crying out for genuinely affordable housing. If developers’ gaming of the system is finally coming to an end, it is reason to celebrate.
“Whether the government is putting forward the right solutions through the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill remains to be seen. This week could be a turning point to prevent further unnecessary loss of greenfield to poor quality and overpriced housing. The government might finally apply a brownfield first approach to new developments; stop unnecessarily wasting valuable farmland; and build affordable and social homes where they’re needed.
“To do so it needs to deliver a planning system that has people, climate and nature at its core. Local democracy needs to be strengthened, with people given greater powers to create thriving neighbourhoods and reject unsuitable developments. We doubt that street votes are the answer: they are not likely to make the planning system more inclusive. But reforms to compulsory purchase orders could open up more affordable housing, if land prices are reasonable.
“Protecting the environment and putting the drive to net zero at the centre of a planning system that listens to local people could reinvigorate our towns and countryside. We look forward to seeing if the policies match up to the promise of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill.”