Today’s big question

Will Tory MPs scupper Boris Johnson’s planning reforms?

After the shock by-election defeat the prime minister has had a ‘wake-up call’

When the government unveiled its ambition for “radical and necessary” reforms to England’s planning system last summer, Boris Johnson declared the aim was to “build, build, build” new homes, schools, hospitals, offices and shops. 

The “once in a generation” reforms would cut “red tape, but not standards”, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick wrote in The Sunday Telegraph at the time. What the government did not expect was that a year later the planning shake-up would spark a Tory backbench revolt and a shock defeat at the polls. 

Controversial reforms 

Legislation for England’s new Planning Bill was outlined in the Queen’s Speech in May and more details are expected to be published later this year. The government wants to introduce a “simpler, faster, people-focused system to deliver the homes and places we need”. Committing to “level up” the country, the reforms are part of the pledge to build 300,000 new homes a year. 

Under the new system, greater freedoms will be granted for buildings and land in town centres to change use without planning permission, so vacant and redundant buildings can be turned into homes. It would also see land designated into three categories: for growth, for renewal and for protection.

“Our country’s outdated and cumbersome planning system has contributed to a generational divide between those who own property and those who don’t,” Jenrick said last August. 

The major shake-up will remove the power of local authorities to turn down housing developments that meet set standards and “herald the return” of 1980s-style development corporations, The Telegraph said. The Planning Bill is seen as “key to shoring up Tory support by boosting home ownership”.

However, the proposals have prompted a “backlash”, with some Conservatives citing them as a factor in local election and by-election defeats for the party, the BBC reports. 

‘In tatters’: trouble in Tory heartlands

The Conservatives suffered a shock loss in last week’s Chesham and Amersham by-election with the Liberal Democrats overturning a 16,000 majority in a seat that has always voted Tory. 

The surprise result was partly down to classic “pavement politics”, said the BBC’s political correspondent Iain Watson, with the Lib Dems “relentlessly campaigning on local issues such as HS2” and the proposed planning laws.

Johnson’s planning reforms have been left in “tatters” following the humiliating by-election defeat in Chesham and Amersham, HuffPost UK reports. 

Veteran MP Roger Gale told the website that the loss was a “wake up call” for the PM and there is a significant backbench rebellion over the plans. On Tory WhatsApp groups “the only thing anybody is talking about is planning”, Gale said. “My personal view is: the policy is in tatters. They’ve got to wake up and smell the coffee.”

Conservative MP William Wragg said “we are not nimbys… nor are we bananas – that is, ‘build absolutely nothing anywhere near anybody’. What we want to see is a planning process… that involves and engages people and builds the housing that we most certainly need.” 

Plans were ‘mischaracterised’

As the government tries to fend off opposition to the planning reforms, Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said Johnson does not want to “brick over the countryside”, The Times reports. 

Buckland accused opponents of having “mischaracterised” the plans and Jenrick has told Tory heartlands that the government has “a duty” to the next generation to build more homes. 

The Telegraph has urged the Tories to “reassure” on planning. “If the reforms have been genuinely mischaracterised, a far more coherent campaign to sell them is needed than we have seen so far,” the paper said in an editorial. 

Labour attempts ‘flop’

In the House of Commons last night planning was the topic of the opposition day debate. A non-binding opposition motion was tabled, which said the government should protect communities’ right to object to individual planning applications, The Guardian reports. It was passed by 231 votes to zero – after the Conservatives abstained. Tory MPs Wragg and Anne Marie Morris rebelled and voted with Labour on the motion.

Labour has called the Planning Bill a “developers’ charter”, but its attempt to exploit Tory divisions over planning reforms “flopped”, says Isabel Hardman in The Spectator. “Labour’s failure to capitalise on the row following the Chesham and Amersham by-election upset doesn’t mean the planning problem is going away,” she writes. “It’s just that a lot of Conservative MPs are playing a much longer game than a non-binding opposition day debate.” 

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