Queen’s Speech praised for levelling up emphasis

Industry welcomes Levelling Up emphasis in Queen’s Speech, but concerns raised on planning, net zero and skills.

Leading industry figures have broadly welcomed the government’s commitment to levelling up and regeneration outlined in the Queen’s Speech this week.

However, the speech also sparked a number of concerns, including a general lack of detail and clarity, a missed opportunity for fundamental reform of the planning system, no major environmental legislation on the upcoming parliamentary calendar, and a lack of initiatives to help attract the new pool of talent vital to build the homes and infrastructure needed to level up the country.

The range of bills briefly outlined in the speech included:

  • Levelling up and regeneration bill: Designed to drive local growth, empowering local leaders to regenerate their areas, the bill will also include reforms to the planning system to give residents more involvement in local development.
  • Transport bill: Legislation will be introduced to modernise rail services and improve reliability for passengers.
  • Energy security bill: An energy bill to deliver the transition to cheaper, cleaner, and more secure energy. 
  • UK Infrastructure Bank bill: The bill will establish the UK Infrastructure Bank in legislation, with objectives to support economic growth and the delivery of net zero.
  • Procurement bill: Public sector procurement will be simplified to provide new opportunities for small businesses.
  • Social housing regulation bill: Legislation to improve the regulation of social housing to strengthen the rights of tenants and ensure better quality, safer homes.

Here is an edited version of industry reaction that landed here at Infrastructure Intelligence following the speech:

Stephen Marcos Jones, CEO of the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE), said: “We support the levelling up and regeneration bill and look forward to seeing the detail as it progresses through parliament. As outlined in our recent report on levelling up, the imperative and opportunity can only be delivered if local government is empowered to do so. With this in mind, we are pleased to see proposals for local leaders and councils to be given the powers to revitalise town centres and deliver new housing and infrastructure. In time we hope that a more holistic and equitable approach to funding, partly through the UK Infrastructure Bank, will also be developed to support this. ACE members stand ready to lend their knowledge, skills and expertise to realise levelling up ambitions.

“With the planning bill not included in this year’s Queen’s Speech, it feels as if we have missed the opportunity for more fundamental reform. However, we await to see changes to the planning process expected in the levelling up and regeneration bill to see whether modest shifts in approach can unlock opportunity. Seven months after COP26, we were also surprised to note that there was no major environmental legislation in the calendar, although progress on the energy bill is welcome, as will be the new funding for net zero projects through the UK Infrastructure Bank.

“Businesses are currently facing a challenging economic climate and we were disappointed not to see more tangible support proposed. The OBR’s forecast of a recession has been recently followed by one from the Bank of England, and it is increasingly clear that companies will be walking a tightrope in the coming months if they are to be able to seize the post-pandemic opportunities that will arise and contribute to recovery. With this in mind, we hope the government will consider proactive, immediate and targeted moves to mitigate inflationary pressures.”

Peter Hogg, UK cities director at Arcadis, said: “The levelling up and regeneration bill will be one of the flagship bills of the next parliamentary session and, of all the bills announced in today’s Queen’s Speech, it promises to be one of the most controversial. Spanning local government reform, a new local plan process and protection of rights to alfresco dining, the bill will have something for everyone to get upset about. In particular, the reform to environmental assessment will involve substantial changes to speed-up infrastructure delivery as promised by government in the energy security plan. 

“When considered together as a whole, these provisions risk losing the clarity of the levelling up mission that was such a vote winner for the government in 2019. The next twelve months may end up highlighting just how impossible it is for the Conservatives to protect their base while delivering on levelling up promises.”

Martin Tugwell, chief executive of Transport for the North, said: “It is reassuring to hear clear mentions of the need for rail reform in today’s Queen’s Speech, something that we and our region’s political and business leaders have been calling for and contributing to. Combined with a focus on innovation and decarbonisation, and underpinned by the ongoing commitment to levelling up, this is a welcome commitment to enhancing connectivity. Transport for the North is ready and waiting to be at the forefront of the government’s plans to make levelling up a reality and create a sustainable transport network across the north of England.” 

Jonathan Hale, head of government affairs at RICS, said: “We are pleased, that the levelling up bill will be led by community driven planning, something we recently called for in relation to CRE and housing, and the bill must be used to drive ambitious changes. However, we are disappointed that planning has been side lined - we have supported root and branch planning reforms and now look forward to seeing where government’s level of ambition for a reformed planning system is.” 

Caroline Gumble, chief executive of the Chartered Institute Of Building, said: “The aims of the new levelling up and regeneration bill, particularly through increased community involvement in planning proposals and redevelopment projects are sound, but the absence of an employment bill to support these initiatives could be a missed opportunity. Without a future pool of talent coming into the sector, any ambitions to build the necessary homes and infrastructure as part of the government’s levelling up agenda will cost more and potentially reach a hard stop within a short space of time.

“We also welcome the announcement of a procurement bill, aimed at making it simpler for smaller businesses – who often struggle to secure local authority projects - to bid for public sector contracts. As part of this, government should recognise the role of qualified professionals in ensuring professionalism, quality and value in public sector projects and programmes, and work with the sector to embed value-based outcomes as part of qualifying for public sector contracts. CIOB continues to champion these mechanisms for enhancing social value and how it can be used as a lever for improving quality, enhancing energy efficiency, promoting business best practice and improving access to the profession.”

Brian Berry, chief executive of the Federation of Master Builders, welcomed the commitment to levelling up, but 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.” 

A statement from the influential IPPR North think tank said: “The levelling up and regeneration bill announced today included some welcome proposals including plans to help struggling high streets and better empower local people in planning decisions – but the government will need to be far bolder if it is to rewire power in England and narrow regional divides. We need an ambitious transfer of power from Whitehall to town halls through a fair, long-term devolution framework coupled with strong resourcing and accountability. Crucially, it isn’t enough for government to self-report on their own levelling up missions. So this bill should establish, in statute, a new independent body outside of London to hold the whole of government to account against legally binding levelling up missions.”

UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) chief executive officer, Julie Hirigoyen, said: “The Queen’s Speech acknowledged the need for cleaner, more secure and affordable energy. Without government action to insulate homes, there is no end in sight to the energy bill crisis, and no prospect of meeting the UK’s climate commitments. Planning reform is long overdue to deliver development that is aligned with our climate commitments and homes that are protected against increasing energy costs. If the government is to achieve its ambition to transform the UK by spreading opportunity and prosperity, then the upcoming bill must ensure that the English planning system is in line with the Climate Change Act and puts us on the pathway to net zero. This will help deliver sustainable development that improves the quality of life for all communities across the UK.” 

Marie-Claude Hemming, director of operations for the Civil Engineering Contractors Association (CECA, said: “There is a clear focus on delivering economic growth in the government’s agenda, and of levelling up opportunities in all parts of the country. We particularly welcome the UK government’s commitment to simplify the public sector procurement system, which will provide greater opportunities for small businesses and drive greater efficiencies. Furthermore, we look forward to the publication of a bill to drive local growth, the UK government’s ambition to improve transport across the UK, and the establishment of the UK Infrastructure Bank in legislation with a remit to drive levelling up and deliver net zero. The UK government is right to recognise that investment in infrastructure is a key driver of growth in our economy, as well as creating high-quality jobs in all parts of England, Scotland and Wales.”

Darren Caplan, chief executive of the Railway Industry Association (RIA), said: “The railway industry will welcome the inclusion of a new transport bill in the Queen’s Speech today. However, it would have been good to see Great British Railways (GBR) specifically mentioned in the speech, to ensure we can make progress. With the introduction of rail legislation, RIA has set out ‘five tests’ for GBR as it is established. These include the need to ensure there is no hiatus in rail work as the restructure takes place, that the new organisation is transparent, open and accessible, and that it supports a sustainable rail supply sector which encourages private investment. The ultimate challenge is to ensure GBR leaves a positive legacy, when it comes to safety, decarbonisation, exports and the economy.”

Jamie Holmes, CEO at VU.CITY said: “Rumours that the planning bill had been scrapped have been realised today, with confirmation that the levelling up and regeneration bill covers the extent of national planning reform. With voters clearly signalling displeasure with the Conservatives through the local elections, it’s imperative the government now delivers on its long-awaited cornerstone policy and makes 'levelling up’ mean something to people across the country. All is not lost; with the right allocation of levelling up funding and by using digital technology to transform the planning system, the government can stimulate the investment and development necessary to help level up the UK’s left-behind towns, cities and beleaguered high streets.”

Patricia Moore, UK managing director at Turner & Townsend, welcomed long-term strategy on net zero and levelling up, but said the industry can't just wait for legislation to force change: “From reaching net zero, to levelling up, today’s speech talks up a number of now well-rehearsed themes for the new parliamentary session. When it comes to levelling up, whilst we expect legislation itself to focus on planning and the fabric of our communities, regional investment, R&D, skills and green jobs is what will secure long-term growth. The success of these policies will come down to how they are set up and delivered. Once again, we heard a commitment today to bring forward overdue reform of public sector procurement. It may not grab headlines, but better procurement is fundamental to delivering investment in a way that meets the UK's ambitions for a more equal and sustainable society.”

Félicie Krikler, director at Assael Architecture, said: "The government's approach to levelling up appears half-hearted in both detail and design. We're still no clearer on what the regeneration agenda will look like, what role London and the south east will play, and the extent to which the development sector will support the government's commitment to deliver 300,000 new homes each year. Piecemeal reforms, such as street votes, are sticking plasters, at a time when the planning system needs urgent review.”

Mark Robinson, group chief executive at SCAPE, said: “The changes being proposed in this parliament have the potential to be transformational for public sector construction. In particular, the levelling up and regeneration bill should ensure the government keeps regional investment at the top of its agenda, while the procurement bill will drive up standards of delivery at a time when inflation threatens to undermine the creation of social value through sustainable, community-focused projects. Both bills have long been needed. However, the procurement bill in particular cannot be delayed any further than it has been if we are to raise overall standards and ensure public bodies are able to procure projects with confidence, regardless of who they partner with.”

Peter Hawthorne, CEO at LCR, the government’s regeneration and placemaking expert, said: “The government’s move to accelerate regeneration will be key to supporting the levelling up agenda. But as well as revitalising our high-streets, local authorities should look to transport-linked land as another opportunity to drive development. Executed well, transport-focused regeneration can help to deliver new homes and create jobs for a local area. We have seen this through landmark examples such as the regeneration of King’s Cross and St Pancras, which is now held up as the archetype for regeneration.”

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