In May 2023, Keir Starmer announced that Labour would “back builders, not blockers” and would give English councils more powers to build on the Green Belt if they come into power. It was a bold move – for years Governments have hinted at finally taking action before rolling back under pressure from their backbenches. On paper, Labour’s is a good policy. But if we look at the politics of the announcement, was it a savvy political move and will it help his electoral chances?
You can probably guess that the short answer is no. But here are some reasons why announcing this now (rather than waiting until they’re actually in power) might not have been a great idea for Labour – beyond simply being able to picture the Tory and Lib Dem leaflets saying “Labour will build on your Green Belt”.
The Green Belt is one of those things that really elicits an emotive response from a lot of people across the country. Despite being designed specifically to stop the unrestricted sprawl of built-up areas and prevent neighbouring towns from merging into each other, it has taken on a whole new meaning for some – being seen as synonymous with open green fields that make the countryside special.
But the reality of the Green Belt is more complicated. Yes, it has value in combatting the above, but in reality there is an element of it that is previously developed and, frankly, of little value. I once worked on a site in the Green Belt that was a car park next to a car factory and a power station, where one councillor remarked that “the only way this place will be Green Belt again is if [they] paint the concrete green”. Yet we were met with opposition throughout. It’s become more and more clear that the Green Belt needs reassessing. Not scrapping, just checking whether everything in it is worth saving.
IS THE GREEN BELT REALLY A BIG DEAL?
Only about 12.5% of land in England is Green Belt (and is on the up – growing for the first time in a decade last year), yet it’s one of the most emotive issues in housing.
This may be where part of the issue lies – do people think Green Belt means what it actually is, or do they think it means all green space? In reality, probably not. The fact that 20% of the population don’t know how they feel about Green Belt development potentially suggests they don’t.
Perhaps the reason it’s such an emotive issue politically is that it’s something that affects more than half of MPs in England, and our local election system – with elections pretty much every year, means that there’s never the space to actually have a balanced conversation about it. No local councillor wants to give their rivals the opportunity to say that they want to build over the Green Belt – even if it is a car park.
GREEN BELT: WHO REPRESENTS IT?
A major reason why MPs are so scared to touch the Green Belt is that it affects so many of them. There are 319 seats in England that have some Green Belt land in them (out of 533), 188 of them are Tory seats, 120 Labour.
You can see why Tory MPs in particular want to preserve the Green Belt – 81% of Green Belt land falls in Tory boundaries, compared to 15% in Labour seats. So, while a larger proportion of Labour seats have Green Belt than any other party (69% of Labour seats vs 56% of Tory seats), they’re only talking about a tiny amount of land.
Clearly, this is a policy that affects all parties, but is particularly emotive in Conservative areas, many of which Labour will be pushing for at the next election if they want to win a majority. So, you would think they would focus on pushing policies that appeal more to Tory voters. Especially in their target seats.
I hate to break it to Sir Keir but 9 of Labour’s top 10 target seats for the next election include Green Belt land. In 7 of these, more than a third of land is Green Belt.
So clearly in these seats there’s an easy win for the Tories if they want to go hard on anti-development rhetoric. The battle in these constituencies is not going to be subtle, so do not expect the incumbents’ activists to be nuanced in their messaging. There will be no “where appropriate” suffix on those Tory “Labour will build on your Green Belt” leaflets.
So in reality, Labour’s housing policy should probably be fairly quiet on Green Belt development. Especially given that…
IT’S NOT A VOTE WINNER FOR ANYONE, ANYWHERE
You probably could have guessed this, but there is very little public support for developing new homes on the Green Belt. A YouGov poll from last week highlights that just under 60% of the public oppose more housing on the Green Belt, with only 23% actually expressing support.
More than that though, it’s not something that wins in any voter group – ironically even fewer Labour voters support building more homes on Green Belt land than Tories (23% vs 27%) – and opposition is obviously stronger amongst Tory voters – 65% opposing to some extent.
Tory voters are also less likely to be undecided – only 8% ‘don’t know’, compared to 18% nationally, suggesting there’s little likelihood of this position changing.
Londoners are the most positive about Green Belt (32% at least somewhat support), though more than a fifth don’t know, while those key Red Wall areas in the Midlands and North that Labour needs to win round are in generally opposed.
Even amongst young people – for whom housing is now considered the second biggest issue facing the country according to YouGov – only 20% support more homes on Green Belt to some extent, with 40% of them having no idea.
Housing be a bigger issue at this election than at previous elections – now a top 5 issue nationally in YouGov’s tracker – so what parties say about housing will have more weight than normal. But there’s clearly much to be done on shaping the debate and understanding of key housing issues – which is not happening right now.
So ultimately, this is a policy that affects just a tiny bit of land but that has major political and public interest, appealing to no one. Far from winning Labour voters, it actually has the potential to lose them votes and hamper their chances in those all-important target seats.
If you would like to find out more about the impacts of new policy announcements ahead of the next election, contact us here.
PRWeek has published its annual ranking of the UK’s leading specialist public affairs consultancies and BECG Group has retained its position at the top of the table for the second consecutive year.
The news comes just two weeks after BECG Group broke into the Top 40 biggest PR consultancies in the UK for the first time, reaching 39th in PRWeek’s Top 150 listing, and Stephen Pomeroy – our Founder and Chair of the Advisory Board – topped the public affairs Power Book.
Carl Daruvalla, BECG Group’s CEO, said:
“Being recognised again as the highest-ranking specialist public affairs agency is fantastic. Getting to the number one position is hard, but staying there is the real challenge and it is down to the expertise and hard work of our team that we have topped the league table again.
“To have reached the top 40 in the overall agency rankings is also a major step forward for us, as we focus on strengthening and growing our market position. Integral to our growth is our ability to anticipate opportunities and challenges for our clients – and deliver excellent results for them time and time again. As our industry evolves, and the shape of communications adapts to new innovations and technologies, we will continue to drive our sector forward, delivering best-in-class, award-winning strategies and campaigns.”
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There is a tendency among political commentators and analysts to put too much weight on the outcomes of local elections when a general election is looming. This is understandable – you don’t want to risk getting bogged down in the detail to the point where it becomes dull for those who just want a broad overview.
But that detail is pretty crucial, and without it you lose a lot of the colour. For example, after the locals the BBC highlighted that, if you were to apply these results to a national election, Labour would have a 9 percentage point (ppt) lead. Two days later, polls were showing Labour at 12 or even 19ppt ahead. Local elections do not predict general elections. They just don’t.
With the dust now settling, I’ve looked at some of the key trends and outcomes and what to look out for in the year ahead to the next general election. Because there’s so much to say, I’ve given you a quick snapshot – but you can click the orange “find out more” buttons if you want to go a little further.
1. This election will not predict the general election.
Local elections do not predict general elections – even if they’re on the same day:
In 1997 (same day): Labour won a historic landslide at the General Election, but only gained 1 councillor in the locals.
In 2010 (same day): The Conservatives and Lib Dems end up in Coalition Government, but both lost 100 councillors each. In contrast, Labour lost the General Election but gained 417 councillors.
In 2019 (6 months apart): The Conservatives lost 1,300 seats at the local elections, but gained an 80 seat majority in Parliament 6 months later.
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There is a tendency for commentators and politicians alike to look at the results of a local election and think they can give you an insight into the next General Election. Often, they absolutely do not – even if they happen on the same day.
Remember 1997, when Labour stormed to a landslide majority of 197 MPs? On the same day, they gained 1 councillor. In 2010, when 13 years of Labour government ended and the Conservative/Lib Dem Coalition came to be, Labour gained 417 councillors while the Tories and Lib Dems lost more than 100 each.
And most recently, in 2019 – the same year that this year’s seats were up for election – the Tories lost 1,300 seats just six months before winning an 80-seat majority in Westminster.
And you only have to look at the polls. The stat that came out after the elections was that Labour would have a 9ppt lead in a national poll but opinion polls since the local elections have reverted back to the general 12-19ppt lead for Labour which we’ve come to expect. There were no elections in London, Wales, or Scotland, all of which will see a decent Labour vote.
There is too much uncertainty. Too much that could change. After all, a year is 52 long times in politics.
2. The Tories’ defeat is greater than you think.
These results shouldn’t be seen in isolation. It’s not just the 1,000 the Conservatives lost this year – they also lost 1,300 the last time these seats were up. That’s 2,300 councillors lost in just two election cycles.
Plus, they’ve lost old-school Tory seats like in South Oxford (down 33 seats to 1 in just 8 years) and Folkestone (down 22 seats to 5 in 8 years)
And Labour absolutely did better and they’re now the biggest party in local politics. In 2019 (the last election for these seats) they lost 84 councillors, this time they gained 537. Most of the Tory losses in 2019 were to Liberal Democrats, Greens and Independents.
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That the Conservatives losing 1,000 seats was ‘expectation management’ before the election ignores the 1,300 seat loss last time these seats were up. It means 2,300 seats lost in 4 years – and in places that have a long history of being Tory heartlands. In 2015, the Tories had 33 of 36 seats in South Oxfordshire, today they have one. In Folkestone & Hythe they had 22 out of 30 seats in 2015, today they have five.
The latter is particularly interesting – one of the main hotspots for illegal boats landing in the UK is now expected to return a Green-Labour coalition.
And for all the bluster about Keir Starmer’s message not getting through on the doorstep, the truth is that Labour made 537 gains in a set of seats that they lost 84 of last time around – it was the Lib Dems, Greens and Independents that were the winners in 2019. This change should not be overlooked. They are now the biggest party in local politics for the first time since 2002.
There were some glimmers of hope for the Conservatives in the inability of Reform to really make headway as an alternative on the right of centre, wins in areas that Labour managed poorly (Leicester and Slough particularly), and that there is still probably 17 months to turn things around.
3. Rise of the alternatives (and tactical voting).
The Lib Dem and Green rises are a proper trend now – this is the fifth set of elections in a row in which they’ve made gains. Between them, they now have 20% of all council seats, up from 16% last year.
Plus, resentment on the left will mean more tactical voting to oust Conservatives in key areas like the Blue Wall. Polling after the election shows that 62% of likely Labour voters and 70% of likely Lib Dem voters would consider voting tactically to ensure the party they dislike (let’s face it, the Tories) lose. Only 38% of Tories would do the same.
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The big winners this year were the Lib Dems and Greens, but this should not be seen as a one-off. In fact, it’s the fifth year in a row that both parties have gained councillors. This is a trend that has fundamentally shifted the landscape of local politics, with the two parties together holding 20% of all UK council seats – up from 16% last year and 14% when these seats were last contested. The Greens even won their first council outright, building on their performance there in 2019 and going from five to 24 seats in just two election cycles.
These results, and the successes in their campaigning, should not be underplayed. But nor should the role of tactical voting, which many have attributed to some of this success and which could be a big factor at the next election. Polling of voters in the ‘Blue Wall’, conducted just days after the elections by Redfield & Wilton, shows that 62% of likely Labour voters and 70% of likely Lib Dem voters would consider voting tactically to ensure the party they dislike (let’s face it, the Tories) loses. Contrary to this, only 38% of Tory voters would consider tactical voting – perhaps because of a lack of choice on their side of the spectrum.
Should this continue to the general election, the Tories might find in some areas that their opposition vote is not quite as split as they expect.
4. Housing will be a headache for all parties because of their own local NIMBYs.
There has been a 557% increase in the number of councils with No Overall Control in 10 years – and it gets bigger every year. But each one is different, so the specific party dynamics in those areas is more important to look at.
Housing (or a lack thereof) has already been cited by some as a reason the Conservatives lost seats. But the rise of local NIMBY parties might not help matters: Lib Dems and Greens are notorious NIMBYs at a local level. Interestingly, you’re statistically more likely to see a planning application granted in a Tory or NOC council than in a Labour one (according to 2021/2 figures – the most recent available).
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After the elections, a growing divide became apparent amongst the Conservatives: is the problem that we’re building too many houses (or too many in the “wrong places”), or are we building too few? This divide has already been seen, with influential Tory MPs in ‘Red Wall’ areas saying that the Conservatives’ conservatism on housing delivery will cost them the votes of countless younger people.
The rise of the Lib Dems and Greens, as well as the ever-growing number of councils under No Overall Control (up from 14 in 2013 to 92 in 2023 – a 557% increase in 10 years), does make things look less certain. The Greens have highly nuanced housing policies, while Lib Dem councillors’ notorious NIMBY tendencies stand in stark contrast to their national housing target policy that is far beyond what the other main parties would offer.
The Lib Dems have a tried and tested approach: win councils, then turn them into campaigning organisations to win the local MP. This is the model that Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy used so well to grow the party in the 1990s and 2000s, and we’ll expect to see this happen again over the next year in areas like Guildford, Elmbridge, and Dacorum – all key commuter areas that usually would be ripe for housing growth.
Meanwhile, where the Greens lead councils it has been significantly harder to get planning applications through. In the most recent year for which data is available, these councils were well down the league table on the proportion of applications that were approved.
And for the No Overall Control areas – the devil will be in the detail: on paper, NOC councils rank second for the proportion of their applications that are granted, behind only the Conservatives. However, where the Greens and Lib Dems have leading roles in the coalitions it’s likely to be harder to get things through. Fortunately, our teams are expert at guiding clients through this!
5. It’s the ‘don’t knows’ and the switchers you need to watch out for.
Rather than focus on these local election results, it’s the ‘don’t knows’ you need to watch. Most polls exclude them, but they’re really the ones who will decide the next General Election.
About 18% of people haven’t decided who they’ll vote for: our polling from March 2023 shows that 39% of these ‘don’t knows’ voted Tory in 2019. If they went back, it would add 7ppt to the Tories’ polling numbers. The ‘don’t knows’ are all to play for – and winning them over is crucial.
As for the switchers, 17% of 2019 Tory voters now say they’d vote for Labour and, importantly, 20% of those who didn’t vote in 2019 say the same. Crossing that line is a big step – it will be very hard for the Tories to win these back.
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The ‘don’t knows’ are pretty crucial ahead of the election. In March 2023 we polled a representative sample of the GB population – the results were largely on parr with other polls, but the figures we were most interested in are those who don’t know how they’ll vote, and those who didn’t vote in 2019. These people are usually removed from opinion polls, but they are arguably the most interesting cohorts.
These groups will decide what to do as we get closer to the election – and these should be the ones that the parties try to appeal to – it’s easier to win them now than before they switch.
18% of our respondents don’t know who they’d vote for in an election, almost as many as those who said they will vote Conservative. This group is key for the Tories right now because 39% of them voted Conservative in 2019, and only 12% of them voted Labour. If this 39% went back, that’s 7ppt to add to the Tories.
We also found that more than 50% of those who didn’t vote in 2019 still won’t, or don’t know. Labour seems to be doing well in this group – 20% of 2019 non-voters would now vote Labour, compared to just 6% who would vote Tory.
Speaking of switchers, 17% of 2019 Tory voters saying they’ll now vote Labour is significant: they’ve very unlikely to go back – this chimes with the idea that many ‘lent’ the Tories their vote in 2019. But more worryingly is that only 50% of 2019 Tory voters say they’ll definitely vote Tory – compare that to Labour where 88% of their 2019 is still on side.
This suggests that the core vote is shored up now – if the parties are sensible their policies should be looking to win over those who have yet to make up their minds.
If you would like to find out more about the key trends and outcomes of the recent local elections or further discuss the year ahead, contact us here.
BECG had another cause for celebration recently following the publishing of PRWeek’s highly anticipated UK Power Book, revealing that Stephen Pomeroy, our Founder and Chair of Advisory Board has taken the number one spot for Public Affairs.
PRWeek’s UK Power Book showcases PR professionals who lead the way in their respective sectors and is the definitive guide to the most influential and respected leaders in our industry. Stephen moved to the top spot after BECG was once again announced as the UK’s number one for public affairs in the most recent PRWeek UK Top 150 consultancies and after we won Best Agency for Public Affairs at PRWeek’s Corporate, City & Public Affairs Awards.
Having stepped down as BECG’s CEO last autumn, Stephen chairs the Group’s Advisory Board which brings together experts in business, politics, corporate communications and government to provide strategic counsel for our teams and clients.
To find out more about our Advisory Board visit here.
What the public thinks about Net Zero and renewable energy sources
More than three-quarters of people would support the development of solar, onshore wind, and offshore wind farm projects in their local area
The Government is due to publish its revised Net Zero Strategy this week following last year’s lawsuit that saw the UK High Court deem the Strategy unlawful due to a lack of detail. This revised Strategy couldn’t be timelier published, with the IPCC’s recent ‘AR6 Synthesis Report’ stating that the level of greenhouse gas emission reductions this decade will determine whether warming can be limited to 1.5°C or 2°C.
Against this backdrop, Cavendish Advocacy and BECG commissioned Focaldata to survey members of the Great British public to understand what they think about Net Zero and the renewable energy project development.
At a time when the energy sector has never been under more pressure, we wanted to understand public attitudes on the key questions like:
What renewable energy projects would the Great British public be supportive of being developed in their area?
Which renewable energy sources do the Great British public think the Government should be doing more to support?
Does the Great British public support the Government’s 2050 net zero goal, and which political parties do they trust to achieve it?
Amidst the challenges of the country’s housing crisis and the condition of current housing stock, which have both been building to severe levels, is the positive of the growth of the build-to-rent (BTR) sector.
Put simply, BTR homes are built entirely for rent in perpetuity, with providers offering long-term tenancies to residents to secure a pipeline of stable income. In return, the model aims to provide long-term, high quality rented homes. These homes are usually coupled with services like superfast broadband, on-site gyms, concierge services and communal facilities. There is almost always staff on-site and most BTR homes have 24/7 security built in too.
As such, the business model behind the tenure seeks residents who want to stay for the long-term and the sector’s pitch to investors is secure and stable returns, as much as they can be in the housing market. Therefore BTR providers need to focus on the satisfaction of their residents to ensure they stay. This means providers are usually more focused on resident satisfaction and providing services residents need rather than focusing on the rental income alone.
Q4 2022 research from Savills notes “The UK’s Build to Rent (BTR) stock now stands at 78,700 completed homes, with a further 50,500 homes under construction. The future pipeline currently stands at 113,400 homes, including those in the pre-application stage. This brings the total size of the sector to 242,500 homes completed or in the potential pipeline.”
Most importantly, 2022 saw “a staggering £4.3 billion of investment making a fourth consecutive record-breaking year” for the sector.
So the sector is growing, there’s investment behind the growth, and the model is one that focuses on resident satisfaction to secure long-term stable income for investors. Isn’t this the answer we’ve all been seeking, particularly the Government, to better rented homes in the UK and a growing housing market?
But for the sector to continue to grow, there’s several challenges to overcome. The first and most obvious blockage is the speed of the planning system. But this is nothing new and a challenge for all those looking to build new homes regardless of tenure.
Another is of incoming legislation which, of late, has failed to differentiate, or account for legislative impacts on, the sector from housebuilders or the wider private rented sector (see the Private Rented Sector White Paper as one example). This legislative challenge speaks to the still-nascent nature of the sector – this could well change as the sector grows across the country.
But still the largest issue for the sector, which also speaks to my previous point, is the perception amongst politicians of what a BTR home is and who lives in them. There still appears to be a misconception in the air that a BTR home is an expensive flat in London, built solely for young professionals. But that’s just not the case. The British Property Federation (BPF) pulled together really interesting data around who lives in BTR. Notable points are that in the BPF’s sample data, “17% of residents are public sector workers, very similar to the wider PRS figure of 19%.” In terms of affordability, the data also shows, “Couples and sharers living in BTR tend to have lower affordability ratios than in the wider PRS, with an average of 28% of income spent on rent compared to 29%, as do families, who spend 27% of their income on rent compared to 32% in the wider PRS.” BPF data also shows that the “planning pipeline for BTR is much stronger in the Regions” too. Single family housing in BTR stock levels is also on the rise.
With mortgage rates and living costs increasing making it harder in the short-term for buyers to secure a mortgage, its entirely possible more people begin to look to long-term, stable, high quality homes to rent whilst economic turbulence continues – this audience will increasingly look to BTR as their answer. This will push up the demand for BTR homes which means opportunity to build more homes to meet this demand across the country. As this process continues, more politicians will come into contact first-hand with the BTR home of today – and they’ll likely be pleased with what they find.
So whilst the housing market looks a challenging place to buy or remortgage in at the moment, the BTR sector presents a welcome, growing place for those who want to stay in one home, in one area and within one community for the long-term. The sector just needs to ensure the planning system is sped up, legislation takes into account the nuances of the sector and the perception amongst politicians is one that is well understood – all very simple!
Cavendish and BECG will be releasing further insight on attitudes to BTR from across the national and local political arena later this year – if you’re interested in what we find, drop your email into the box below and we’ll be sure you’re one of the first to hear our findings.