Analysis: How the Conservatives have never made their peace with where to build more homes

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Voters have reacted badly to the Prime Minister's plan to 'force' new homes on communities in the south of England - Reuters
Voters have reacted badly to the Prime Minister's plan to 'force' new homes on communities in the south of England - Reuters

"The problem with political suicides is you live to regret them," Tory MP Bob Seely said on Friday, in the wake of the Tories' disastrous defeat in the Chesham and Amersham by-election.

Mr Seely was referring to how voters in the Buckinghamshire constituency had been driven into the arms of the Liberal Democrats in part over latest Government attempts to reform the planning system.

Mr Seely, MP for the Isle of Wight, now leads an army of up to 100 Conservative MPs in a "Planning Concern" WhatsApp which is gearing up for another battle over a loosening of rules governing building.

The latest row is only the latest salvo in the ongoing battle between the Conservative party and many of its voters about how to build more homes that stretches back to the early years of David Cameron's government a decade ago.

Then, Mr Cameron's government suggested watering down a 1,400-page planning rule book called the National Planning Policy Framework to just 52 pages, in a bid to clear away red tape gumming up the system.

Cameron's rural trouble

The idea was to get more homes built, and it controversially included a new "presumption in favour of sustainable development", which campaigners said puts parts of rural England at risk and gave developers an effective "licence to build".

The reforms were bitterly opposed by rural campaigners, the National Trust, Tory MPs and even The Telegraph, which ran a "Hands Off Our Land" campaign after being flooded with letters from concerned readers.

After a stormy few months that pitted Tory ministers against many of their natural supporters, a watered down version of the rule book was published in 2012 which included a requirement for planners to recognise the countryside's "intrinsic value and beauty".

An uneasy peace ensued. Ministers have had little appetite to push for more large-scale reforms of the planning system, despite the fact that house building targets were repeatedly missed.

300,000 homes a year

To his credit, Mr Johnson has not shied away from the challenge, fighting and winning the 2019 general election on a manifesto pledge to boost house building to 300,000 homes a year "by the mid 2020s".

These new homes would be built "in the areas that really need them," it said, "and we will make the planning system simpler for the public and small builders, and support modern methods of construction".

Conservative MPs in south-east England might have read the carefully worded commitment and considered that the areas that "really need" new homes were in the North of England, where there is less pressure on land.

This may explain the outrage that greeted Mr Johnson's plans last September to tweak a formula which calculates how many new homes councils are required to build.

Mutant algorithm

It meant that often Tory seats around cities like London, Nottingham, Leicester and Liverpool were being forced to take tens of thousands of new homes while inner city areas were left relatively unscathed.

Tory MPs blamed a "mutant algorithm" and said it would lead to a "Manhattanisation of the suburbs" with some Conservative areas forced to accept the equivalent of several new towns, each with 5,000 new homes.

A group of as many as 80 Conservative MPs, corralled by Mr Seely and including former Cabinet minister Theresa Villiers, was formed to fight the proposals.

A compromise emerged in December when Communities secretary Robert Jenrick replaced the formula with one to focus on building more in England’s 20 biggest cities.

But the battle had not gone away. May's Queen's Speech confirmed that the Government would press ahead with a new Planning Bill once again to overhaul the planning system.

The bones of the proposed new law were set out in the Planning for the Future white paper last August, which was seen as the biggest overhaul of the system since the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act.

'An open season for developers'

All councils in England will be required to submit new Local Plans setting out where development will take place in as little as 30 months, rather than the seven years taken by some authorities.

Communities will be divided into three areas: "growth", where permission to develop in principle is granted and automatic approvals would be available for pre-established development types; "renewal", with a general presumption in favour of development; and "protected", where development might be allowed but within strict conditions.

The CPRE (the Countryside Charity, formerly known as the Campaign to Protect Rural England) has already described the Bill as creating "an open season for developers on large parts of the countryside, and a fatal weakening of local communities' right to be heard on the future of their area".

MPs ready for a fight

However, Conservative MPs have been more willing to wait to see how many of the measures in the white paper appear in the Government's response to a consultation before the draft Bill is published in the Autumn.

Already there are signs of nerves. A commitment to publish the response by the end of this month has been pushed back by months. Labour, sensing a chance to exploit Conservative unhappiness, has scheduled a day's debate on Monday.

Mr Seely and his army of Tory MPs are gearing up for a fight with their own Government. It is not one they want to have. Mr Seely said: "We need planning reform which is community-led, green-led and levelling-up led. Too many communities are being treated like foie gras geese with endless housing shoved down their gullet."

Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith also warned that the party can ill-afford to anger more of its core seats in the South of England.

"I urge the Government to think carefully about the next stage of this. We need to hold these seats as much as we need to win seats elsewhere," he said.

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