Which manifesto is best for architecture?

Several major issues could swing the 12 December election. Here, the Architecture Foundation compares the three main parties’ commitments to our built environment.

On 12 December we will face one of the most divisive elections in recent history with many issues competing for attention. While the Conservatives have pledged to unlock Brexit and unleash a wave of enterprise, private investment and innovation, Labour has pledged a second referendum and to tax higher earners and corporations to fund a bold programme of re-nationalisation and public investment. The Liberal Democrats have meanwhile pledged to cancel Brexit altogether so the country can focus on other issues.

As an important cog in the construction industry, UK architecture stands to gain enormously from any major investment in the built environment but it is also particularly vulnerable to any economic uncertainty resulting from political – and indeed geo-political – upheaval. With Brexit on the horizon, certainty of public and private investment will be key to the profession’s fortunes.

A recent poll by The Architects’ Journal found 37 per cent of respondents supported Labour in the upcoming election, although this figure had fallen from 64 per cent of respondents at the 2017 election. Support for the Conservatives in the latest poll was third at 13 per cent, below the Liberal Democrats which scored second place with 30 per cent.

On 25 November an open letter of support for the Labour party was signed by 500 architects, artists, writers and cultural workers including Peter Barber of Peter Barber Architects, Liza Fior of Muf architecture/design, Simon Henley of Henley Halebrown, Patrick Lynch of Lynch Architects, film-maker Patrick Keiller and the academic Robert Mull.

Brexit

Brexit is the big issue of the day, and it could have a huge impact on architecture. The Conservatives have pledged to pass a withdrawal agreement as soon as possible and formally exit the European Union – including the single market – in January. Following this the government would have a year to negotiate a free trade agreement with Europe. It is this agreement which will shape the future terms on which everything – including architectural services – is bought and sold with our near neighbours. While it is difficult to imagine a tariff being levied on architectural design it remains the case that everything is to play for, creating uncertainty.

Labour in comparison has pledged to negotiate its own withdrawal deal which would see the UK remain within the EU customs union and maintain a close relationship with the single market, removing the need for a comprehensive future free trade agreement. Under Labour’s Brexit, the buying and selling of architectural services will be more closely aligned with existing EU procedures (although from experience we know the UK already interprets these rules differently from its neighbours). Under the Conservatives’ Brexit, the UK could theoretically re-write the procurement rule book from scratch although the necessity of international trade deals makes this unlikely. Labour has also pledged a referendum where voters will decide between its deal and no Brexit at all, both of these options are closer to the status quo than the Conservatives’ offer.

The Liberal Democrats say they will revoke Article 50, effectively cancelling Brexit, and focus instead on harnessing a £50 billion ‘Remain Bonus’ to boost public services. This money, which would otherwise have been spent on Brexit, will go towards creating a ‘fairer economy’ with better funded schools and mental health provisions. UK membership of the customs union and single market would continue, delivering maximum continuity which could be appealing for some, although it is very hard to find anyone in architecture with a positive view of the current procurement regime.

Architecture is impossible without a talented workforce and immigration has always played an important role in the success of UK practices. The policies of both main parties here are vague in the extreme. The Conservatives have promised an ‘Australian-style points-based immigration system’ to attract the ‘best and brightest from all over the world’. The manifesto tells us this means fewer ‘lower-skilled’ migrants, fewer migrants overall and a clear job offer will be required prior to arrival. There will however be no difference in treatment between EU and non-EU applications. In contrast, Labour has promised a ‘humane’ immigration system ‘built on human rights and aimed at meeting the skills and labour shortages that exist in our economy and public services.’ Both will end freedom of movement and that means the simplicity, or complexity, of whatever system comes next could be a major issue for practices. The Liberal Democrats have meanwhile promised to retain freedom of movement and create a more ‘compassionate and effective’ system whereby the business and education departments determine applications rather than the Home Office.

Climate

Climate change is now widely recognised as a threat to human existence and following the declaration of a climate emergency by the UN, EU and many countries around the world it could be a major political issue at this election. In line with EU recommendations, the Conservatives have promised to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Around £9.2 billion will be invested in the crucial but long-delayed task of upgrading the energy efficiency of our homes, schools and hospitals. The Conservatives’ first budget will also focus on the environment with new funding for research and development, and decarbonisation schemes which could unlock 2 million new jobs in clean growth, according to the manifesto.

Labour has meanwhile outstripped the party of government with a promise to achieve a net-zero-carbon energy system by the 2030s or sooner if possible. By this point around nearly 90 per cent of electricity and half of all heat will come from renewable and low-carbon sources, according to the manifesto. A £400 billion National Transformation Fund will also invest in renewable and low-carbon energy, transport, biodiversity and environmental restoration. Almost all of the UK’s 27 million homes – which form the largest part of our built environment and account for 56 per cent of the UK’s total emissions – will be upgraded to the ‘highest energy-efficiency standards’. The consequences of these policies, if they can be delivered, could be an enormous pipeline of work for architects and also a huge upskilling and expansion of the professional workforce.

The Liberal Democrats have condemned both the Conservatives’ track record on the environment and Labour’s renationalisation programme and instead promise their own phased approach which will meet all zero-carbon targets by 2045. The first step will see all homes insulated, 80 per cent of UK energy generated from renewable sources, and all new cars electric by 2030. Harder to green areas of the economy will then be focussed on over the following years through a pragmatic framework of new environmental regulations. Like Labour, the Liberal Democrats will apply a new zero-carbon standard to new homes and public buildings. They also aim to plant 60 million trees a year and will be encouraging greater use of sustainably-sourced timber in construction.

Housing

In the space of just a few years, housing has once again become a major political issue in the UK. The Conservatives have embraced a bolder policy than one might expect from a party with, traditionally, a largely rural voter base, although it is buried towards the end of their manifesto. The party has pledged to deliver 300,000 new homes every year by the mid-2020s with the aim of completing one million new homes of all tenures by 2025.

The Conservatives believe new growth bodies – based on the models of the Northern Powerhouse, Western Gateway and Midlands Engine – will deliver greater levels of foreign investment into UK housing while new long-term fixed rate mortgages will help to reignite potential young buyers’ access to home ownership. Help to Buy – which some argue mostly helped to prop up house prices – will be extended to 2023 while the controversial Right to Buy programme will be maintained, something Labour has promised to scrap.

Despite numerous recent reforms, the planning system will soon be made ‘simpler for the public and small builders’ according to the Conservatives who have also pledged to deliver ‘beautiful, high-quality homes’ thanks to design standards agreed by local communities. While Labour has pledged all new homes must be built to a new zero-carbon standard, the Conservatives have simply promised they will be ‘environmentally friendly’ with low energy bills while all new streets must be tree-lined.

Labour in turn has promised to create a new Department for Housing which symbolically acknowledges the party’s own partial role in allowing the crisis to reach such a scale. The party will deliver a million new social homes over a decade and aims to deliver 150,000 council and social homes every year by the end of the next parliament. Councils will have a duty to both plan and build new low-cost homes with backing from national government.

Unlike the Conservatives’ manifesto there is no clearly articulated commitment to design quality or ‘architectural beauty’ beyond the potential aesthetic implications of requiring all new units to be zero-carbon. Labour has however offered to allow local government greater freedom to set planning fees and suggested the climate emergency should play a deciding role in all planning approvals.

A new English Sovereign Land Trust will be given the power by Labour to buy sites cheaply for low-cost housing while new taxes will force developers to build out stalled sites. Millions of existing homes will be upgraded to make them more energy efficient and £1 billion will be spent fitting sprinklers and other fire safety measures in all socially-rented tower blocks.

Labour has promised to scrap the ‘bogus definition’ of affordable housing and replace it with a new standard linked to local incomes which could have complicated consequences for residential schemes already in planning. The highly controversial process of converting disused offices into often substandard residential acommodation using permitted development rights will also be banned, along with Right to Buy. Estate regenerations will only be permitted under a Labour government with the resident approval and with on-site re-housing of everyone on existing tenancy terms.

The Liberal Democrats offer to build 100,000 new social homes every year with a total of 300,000 new units completing across the country annually. The investment is part of a £130 billion capital infrastructure budget which aims to address existing shortcomings in social and physical infrastructure. Right to Buy will be devolved to local authorities and a new Rent to Own model will allow tenants to purchase their home over a 30-year period.

Society

Public services such as schools, hospitals and care homes are always expensive to run and maintain, and following a decade of spending cuts the enormous cost of bringing these services up to standard has only increased. To varying degrees both parties have pledged to up their investment in this area with the Conservatives promising £14 billion over three years for primary and secondary schools and the cash to deliver 20 hospital upgrades and 40 new hospitals. A further £2 billion will be spent by the Conservatives on upgrading the UK’s entire further education college estate and £1 billion on improved care home infrastructure.

Labour in comparison has pledged to create a £150 billion ‘Social Transformation Fund’ which is almost three times larger than the enormous Building Schools for the Future programme axed at the start of the Coalition government. This fund will allow the state to ‘replace, upgrade and expand’ schools, hospitals, care homes and council homes across the country although once again there is little mention of design quality or how value for money will be achieved. It will also fund the modernisation of existing public buildings to reduce their carbon footprint with the NHS itself planned to become a net-zero-carbon service under Labour. The party’s promise to launch a new National Education Service and to abolish university tuition fees will meanwhile undoubtedly be a boon to anyone aspiring to become an architect.

The Liberal Democrats will invest £130 billion in a range of social and physical infrastructure upgrades, including transport, energy, schools, hospitals and homes. The party will invest £10 billion of this on hospital upgrades and £1 billion on new children’s centres. It will also create a £10,000 skills wallet for every citizen which can be spent on approved courses at any time in your life, although considering the exorbitant cost of architectural education this might prove less useful for the profession.

Infrastructure

Physical infrastructure is another key battleground between the two main parties with the Conservatives promising to invest £100 billion in Northern Powerhouse Rail, the Midlands Rail Hub and other enhancements intended to unlock private investment. This includes £4 billion on flood defences – slightly lower than Labour’s £5.6 billion pledge in this area – and £28.8 billion towards strategic and local roads, which is great if your practice involves building stunning statement housing in the countryside but less good for the environment.

To compensate the Conservatives will spend £1 billion on a fast charging network for electric vehicles and £350 million on a cycling infrastructure fund with mandatory design standards. While Labour has pledged to deliver HS2 all the way up to Scotland, the Conservatives say they will wait for the findings of Oakervee review into the line’s costs and timings before reaching any conclusions. Around £2.75 billion will also be spent by the Conservatives on refurbishing and creating modern prisons.

Labour has promised a massive re-nationalisation programme which will see rail, postal services, water, and energy all brought back into public ownership. The party’s long-term investment plan includes delivering Crossrail for the North and the reopening of branch lines. Full-fibre will also be provided to all homes for free by 2030. Labour says it will develop a long-term strategy for the notoriously decrepit prisons estate and tackle its maintenance backlog. It will also invest in three new recyclable steel plants in areas historically associated with steel manufacturing.

The Liberal Democrats have meanwhile pledged to electrify Britain’s railways and ensure that all new cars are electric by 2030. Around £5 billion will be invested in flood defences and £4.5 billion in new bus routes while the party has also pledged its support for High Speed 2, Northern Powerhouse Rail, East-West Rail and Crossrail 2.

Public space

Delivering high-quality public buildings and spaces will always rank high among architects’ career goals. The Conservatives have promised a new Towns Fund which will see 100 struggling towns receive money to boost their local economy.  The Conservative manifesto also stresses that £250 million has already been awarded for upgrading local libraries and regional museums (including a new Central Hall at the National Railway Museum for which a design contest is already under way). The party of government has promised to create a £150 million Community Ownership Fund to allow grass-roots takeovers of under-threat civic assets such as football clubs, post offices and pubs. Other big ticket commitments include a potential UK and Ireland bid for the 2030 FIFA World Cup, and a Festival of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in 2022. Originally billed as a Festival of Brexit – and inevitably lampooned – the summit will draw on ‘leading arts and cultural organisations, universities, research institutes and businesses’ to create a celebration of ‘British innovation and creativity’. If done right, this could offer a comparable design opportunity as the 1951 Festival of Britain.

Labour has meanwhile announced an enormous £1 billion Cultural Capital Fund to transform libraries, museums and galleries across the country. Four times greater than the Conservatives’ commitment, this could result in a wave of commissions and design competitions. The distribution of National Lottery funding will also be reviewed in a bid to boost transparency and help all communities receive a fair share of the programme’s spoils. Labour has pledged to stem the decline of high streets by halting bank branch closures, banning ATM charges and empowering councils to ‘put empty shops to good use’. Community groups will also be offered first chance to buy local pubs when they are under threat. Finally, the UK City of Culture initiative will be expanded with a new Town of Culture competition.

The Liberal Democrats have meanwhile announced a new £50 billion Regional Rebalancing Programme intended to redress imbalances between the regions and devolved nations and to expand the Future High Streets Fund to help struggling towns. A new £2 billion Rural Services Fund will also see new local services clustered in hubs around existing civic facilities in historically underserved areas. A review of planning rules will meanwhile seek to protect music venues from closure and redevelopment.