In Depth

Is Boris Johnson heading to war with Tory voters over housebuilding?

Tory shire councils will be forced to hand over planning power to government

Boris Johnson has courted controversy within his own party after it was revealed that plans to expand government home building will remove powers from a number of Conservative-led councils.

Johnson’s reform of planning laws will take control over the rate of building out of the hands of local governments and hand these powers to No. 10, which intends to “distribute” an annual target of 300,000 homes among the local authorities, The Times reports.

But critics of the reforms claim they could lead to an increase in the amount of so-called “slum” housing, particularly in more affluent areas of the country with more empty land. 

What are the reforms?

Johnson yesterday unveiled a large-scale reform of planning policy intended to support the government’s goal of building 300,000 new homes built per year - a target it has missed multiple times in recent years.

The scheme will allow commercial buildings to change to residential use without a planning application, as well as introducing a “fast-track approval process” to allow homeowners to build above their properties, subject to neighbour consultation, PBC Today reports.

However, the most controversial part of the proposal is the imposition of housing requirements on local councils, with those in more affluent areas required to release the most land.

According to a consultation document published in The Times, the government believes that allowing local councils an element of discretion over their construction targets is “judged to have failed, particularly in areas with chronic shortages”.

The government now says it will distribute its national target, while “leaving [councils] with only the discretion of which land to designate for building rather than how much”.

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick said the new system would be “much simpler and faster” than the existing model, which has been described by senior adviser Dominic Cummings as “appalling”.

Why will this upset Tory shires?

The consultation document suggests that removing council powers on housing is “likely to be one of the most controversial elements of the new system” as it will “require councils with the least affordable housing - typically in Conservative-controlled affluent areas - to release the most land”, The Times says.

The government is already receiving ominous warnings from Conservative MPs. “The plans will face a rough ride in parliament,” says the Financial Times, as well as in loca; government. Tory councillors are likely to be the most “vociferous critics of proposals that will remove some of their planning powers”, it adds.

As Times Radio chief political commentator Tom Newton Dunn wrote on Twitter, “the juiciest bit” of the propsed reform is that “councils will be ordered to build where people want to live. That means expanding leafy market towns in largely Tory constituencies”.

Tom Fyans, the deputy chief executive at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, told the Daily Express that “the acid test for the planning reforms is community involvement”.

He said he was unconvinced that the new proposals would prove sufficiently inclusive, and called for “robust legal guarantees that the public are consulted regarding new development”.

Will this fix the UK’s housing crisis?

An estimated 8.4 million people in England are living in an unaffordable, insecure or unsuitable homes, according to the BBC.

Labour leader Keir Starmer accused Johnson of promising them “a new deal, but there is not much that’s new, and, it’s not much of a deal”.

Environmental groups have also expressed concerns that the new regulations will bulldoze through protections on English countryside. 

In an open letter to The Observer, a group of wildlife organisations including the National Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the Wildlife Trusts wrote: “There are rumours of deregulatory measures, including those that weaken laws to protect habitats and wildlife.

“There is no public appetite for deregulation, with 93% of Conservative voters wanting to maintain or strengthen protections for habitats and wildlife.”

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