New Labour, new work opportunities?

How will a change of government affect the legal profession? If the results of a survey gauging the impact of a Labour Party victory on the property industry is anything to go by, lawyers will almost certainly be among the major beneficiaries as the industry comes to terms with a spate of new legislation.

The survey, conducted in December and January by the national property department of Pinsent Curtis, in association with Property Week, elicited more than 500 responses from all corners of the industry. Respondents were asked to predict changes under Labour in areas such as development, planning, taxation, inward investment and the Private Finance Initiative (PFI).

PFI is an area that has seen significant growth for lawyers in the past two years and under Labour will probably create even more work for the profession. Even without changing the current rules, 54 per cent of the survey respondents expect it to grow significantly over the next two years.

However, since only 26 per cent expect Labour to retain PFI in its current form, much of the future legal work is likely to arise from managing the expected changes to PFI rules.

This accords with Labour's own pronouncements on the subject, claiming that the PFI process will be streamlined to prioritise by social need rather than by the complex financial criteria which currently apply.

For lawyers mired in the bureaucratic intricacies of a project this may come as blessed relief. In practice, "streamlining" will make little difference: the complex tendering arrangements are dictated by Brussels, not the UK government; meanwhile, giving greater importance to social need is likely to further complicate the already abstruse principles of risk transfer between public and private sector.

Labour's perceived commitment to urban regeneration and increased capital spending were two of the reasons for 51 per cent of respondents believing that Labour will be more likely to stimulate property development than the Conservatives. If so, this in itself would be good news for property lawyers.

With so little public cash available from either party, though, Labour is likely to extend PFI much further than its current focus on healthcare and into urban regeneration projects. The scope here for the legal profession must be enormous. Lawyers are also likely to be more heavily involved in planning issues.

For example, the survey revealed fears of a more complicated planning process under Labour, with 58 per cent of respondents predicting far wider consultation on planning applications. Such rules would need careful interpretation.

One of the strongest of all reactions to the forthcoming election was the fear of a hung parliament, cited by more than three quarters of respondents as having a negative effect on the industry.

A hung parliament in practice means a Labour-led coalition with the Liberal Democrats. This party is committed to environmental issues and its influence in government might well lead to more protracted planning enquiries and more environment-based legislation.

A note of caution. If, as 82 per cent of our survey predicts, interest rates will either be slightly or significantly higher under Labour, this could act as a restraint on the property industry. The ultimate effect might be to reduce the work available for lawyers.

It comes as little surprise that, in most policy areas, the property industry is still widely supportive of the Conservatives. What must be less comforting for Tory strategists, however, is the benefit of the doubt that the industry appears to be giving to the Labour party in the run-up to the General Election. What happens beyond – both for the industry and its lawyers – is anyone's guess.