The Government’s "planning free-for-all" is "electorally toxic" and must be abandoned, a rebel Tory ringleader has claimed, as pressure on Boris Johnson mounts in the wake of the Chesham and Amersham by-election defeat.
With senior Tories this set week to ratchet up pressure on ministers to shelve the controversial reforms, Bob Seely, the MP for the Isle of Wight, warned that they would "rip up" people’s ability to object to new developments in their communities.
Writing for The Telegraph, Mr Seely argues that the current plans for a new zonal system without community input will strip away “a critical layer of local democracy from the planning process” and are a “fool’s errand”.
In the wake of the crushing defeat to the Liberal Democrats on Friday, he added that the scale of opposition to the Planning Bill stems from MPs reflecting the "concerns of many of our constituents from across the political spectrum and age groups".
"The plans look like a developers’ charter. Again, it’s just wrong – a planning free-for-all will be electorally toxic, and for good reason," he continued.
The Bill, due in the Autumn, will see the country split into at least two zones marked for protection or growth. In areas marked for development, critics say existing home owners will find it harder to object to new builds.
However, the Government says the reforms will make the planning system "more accessible" to residents and are necessary to fix the housing crisis and help young people get on the property ladder.
Mr Seely’s intervention comes after local opposition to planning reforms and HS2 were blamed for the Conservatives losing Chesham and Amersham on Friday, a seat they have held since it was created in 1974.
The result has reignited fears among southern Tories of a "Blue Wall" collapse, with dozens now prepared to vote down changes to the planning system for fear of a backlash among constituents in leafy towns and suburbs.
Labour will on Monday attempt to drive a wedge between Mr Johnson and his backbenchers by holding a non-binding vote on the need to give communities greater oversight of planning applications.
Urging Tory rebels to put "your money where your mouth is", Steve Reed, the shadow housing secretary, called on MPs opposed to the reforms to vote with Labour in the Commons.
Hitting back, Robert Buckland, the Justice Secretary, said the reforms had been "mischaracterised" and at "no time has this proposal been about suddenly indiscriminately bricking over the countryside". "I think the policy is absolutely right," he told the BBC. "What it’s designed to try and do is make sure we get that balance across the country."
Writing for The Telegraph last month, Robert Jenrick, the Housing Secretary, also urged MPs to rethink their opposition, insisting the reforms and a digital overhaul will empower rather than disenfranchise local communities.
However, Mr Seely said ministers must strengthen rather than weaken the ability of residents to object to developments, adding that communities with neighbourhood plans appeared to accept "higher housing allocations, probably because they could shape the process".
While a so-called "mutant algorithm" for calculating housing need across the country has been ditched, Mr Seely said the allocation is still too heavily skewed towards the South, to the detriment of investment in "Red Wall" areas in the North and the Midlands.
Change – or be bulldozed by voters
The Conservatives lost Chesham and Amersham for two reasons: HS2 and planning reforms," writes Bob Seeley.
HS2 – love it or loathe it – we can no longer do anything about. We can, however, do something about planning reforms. We can get them right.
So why are Tory MPs worried? Because we are reflecting the concerns of many of our constituents from across the political spectrum and age groups.
First, the Government wants to remove a critical layer of local democracy from the planning process. This is wrong. Ripping up peoples’ rights to object is a fool’s errand. Post-Brexit, we need to be empowering communities, not emasculating them.
Second, the plans look like a developers’ charter. Again, it’s just wrong; a planning free-for-all will be electorally toxic, and for good reason. We live in a democracy.
Third, the method of assessing housing need, the Standard Method, still sets housing need below recent delivery in some Northern areas. It reinforces the "hamster wheel" of planning doom in the South, where more housing in the past equals more housing in the future. It must change if we are to keep our promises to the "Red Wall".
Strengthen neighbourhood planning processes
So what’s the answer? Our planning reforms should be community-led, environment-led and levelling up-led. Sounds good – what does it mean?
First, we need to strengthen the neighbourhood planning processes, not weaken them. Councils already approve nine in 10 applications, but one report showed communities with Neighbourhood Plans accepted higher housing allocations, probably because they could shape the process.
Therefore, working with communities delivers more than treating them as the planning equivalent of a foie gras goose, with ever more housing shoved down their gullets.
Second, planning should be environment-led. Low-density, greenfield housing is unsustainable on so many levels. Yet it is argued that as many as 400,000 homes are still planned on greenfield sites in the South in the next five years.
Idea: we need a greenfield tax, the proceeds of which should be spend on brownfield clean-up to pay for and prioritise building on the 36,600 hectares of brownfield land in this country. The developers will squeal. But, to paraphrase Billy Bragg, whose side are we on?
We are depriving the ‘Red Wall’ of investment
And levelling up; many Red Wall colleagues are beginning to realise how the South-East housing obsession damages them. Why? Because the current housing methodology "systematically disadvantages poorer parts of the country, particularly in the North and Midlands … where investment is more in need", according to one expert report.
For example, spending to support housing in the North is only 17.8 per cent of the total, down from 24.5 per cent in 1998-99. The Housing Infrastructure Fund has allocated the equivalent of £115 per head in the east of England, but only £4 per head in Yorkshire and the Humber. That is a shocking figure.
Simply put, we are actively depriving the "Red Wall" of investment. Greenfield housing in the South, with the accompanying construction jobs, infrastructure jobs and household spend jobs becomes self-reinforcing. It continues – reductio ad absurdum – unsustainable development. It is, in the words of 80s band Talking Heads, a Road to Nowhere.
Conservative MPs actively want to help ministers get planning right. We respectfully ask to be listened to. We have lots of ideas; reframe the economics of housing to "price in" the real cost of greenfield; help councils recycle long-term unused properties; agree "use it or lose it" rules for the million planning permissions "landbanked" by developers; change the tax regime for non-UK buyers, introduce supply side measures, etc.
Political suicides – you live to regret them
However, if the Government is going to present to Parliament a "developers’ charter" stripped of local democracy –- or a watered down version of that – then, even if it manages to get it through Parliament (a big ask) it will be bulldozed by our constituents. Lesson: don’t fight voters. If you do, they fight back.
We need planning law with clear principles, not Dr Doolittle’s Pushmi-Pullyu going in all directions at once. Planning needs to be community-based, environmentally sensitive and geared to our levelling up agenda. We need to get this right.
The health of our communities, in my wonderful patch of the Isle of Wight and throughout England, depends on it. Anything else risks political suicide – and the problem with political suicides, as Winston Churchill noted, is that you live to regret them.
Boris Johnson’s leadership has given us an extraordinary mosaic of electoral support throughout the country. Let’s not unpick it now.
- Bob Seeley is the MP for the Isle of Wight