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Boris Johnson Faces Tory Revolt Over “Radical" Planning Reform – But Risks Angering Voters If He Backs Down

5 min read

When a new white paper on overhauling planning laws to speed up housebuilding was revealed last year, Boris Johnson bombastically declared he would “tear it down and start again”, but a looming rebellion now threatens to pour cold water on his grand plans. 

The prime minister pledged “radical reform unlike anything we have seen since the Second World War”, and promised the government would not “fiddle round the edges”, but would instead level the whole planning system in England. 

But the man charged with pushing through these reforms, housing secretary Robert Jenrick, has now told the country’s councils quite the opposite.

“I don’t think we need to rip up the planning system and start again,” he said in a recent speech to the Local Government Association. 

Jenrick’s row-back follows a revolt by MPs, activists and supporters so large that it still threatens to blow apart the new coalition of Conservatives Johnson built with his election victory in 2019.

It means that when the legislation to enact the reforms is finally tabled later this year Johnson is expected to face his toughest Commons challenge yet, despite reports many of the most controversial elements from the white paper will be ditched.

The Conservative defeat in the Chesham and Amersham by-election earlier this year fuelled Tory disquiet over the effect plans to build 300,000 more houses per year will have in their traditional heartlands in the South.

There are almost 100 MPs in a WhatsApp group called ‘Planning Concern’, as well as senior figures speaking out and comparing it to the much-maligned “poll tax”, with Jenrick now holding weekly video sessions with backbenchers to try and soothe anger ahead of Parliament’s return.

Anger is centred on the commitment to a zonal planning system and the ensuing presumption in favour of development, stripping control away from local authorities and affording individuals less of a say.

The government faces a tough challenge in pacifying its own party, which is worried a commitment to millions more houses will see a concreting over of the countryside, while also improving the country’s record when it comes to housebuilding.

Ministers have already been forced to drop the so-called “mutant algorithm” created to allocate the hundreds of thousands of new homes, which could have seen Johnson’s Uxbridge seat in west London have to find room for 10-times more houses than Rishi Sunak’s Yorkshire constituency of Richmond.

Planning has long been fraught with difficulty, and the issue is a true test for any government, as David Cameron found out after the Telegraph mounted a vociferous campaign titled “Hands Off Our Land” when he tried and failed to make widespread reform a decade ago.

But Johnson’s administration has a massive majority, his party enjoys huge support from property developers, and given homeowners are far more likely to vote Tory it makes political sense to create as many more of them as possible.

His sweeping election victory two years ago was built on the promise to “level up” the country and help less well-off communities in the North and the Midlands, including improvements to housing stock and getting people onto the property ladder.

Plus building low-carbon new homes is a key part of the government’s net zero strategy, meaning they cannot afford to row back on their proposals, putting them on a potential collision course with MPs.

The key plank of the planning reform as it was first laid out was the reorganisation of land into three categories: protected, renewal and growth.

Land marked suitable for “growth” will mean plans will be approved for development at the same time they are prepared, while councils would be required to look favourably on development in so-called “renewal” areas, places either already built on or land adjacent to existing development.

On the “protected” land such as the current Green Belt building will remain restricted.

But plans to commit to zonal planning and force councils to designate a proportion of land for “growth” – which will confer automatic outline permission on it – have proved controversial as it is seen to be removing power from local authorities.

The consultation document also sets out a deadline, to be enforced through legislation, giving councils and the Planning Inspectorate a 30-month window to agree new Local Plans, or 42 months for those that have enacted a new Local Plan within the past three years.

“Local councils should radically and profoundly re-invent the ambition, depth and breadth with which they engage with communities as they consult on Local Plans,” it states.

The white paper adds that new Local Plans “should be visual and map-based, standardised, based on the latest digital technology, and supported by a new standard template”, as part of the move from the document-based planning system currently in effect to a digital one.

The other major reform is ditching Section 106 agreements, the mechanisms between a developer and a local authority which make planning proposals acceptable, such as site-specific mitigations, community infrastructure and financial contributions.

Other measures will give a 30% first home discount to key workers, help first-time buyers to get a foot on the property ladder, and boost the market share of small builders “cut off by the planning process”.

The government wants to complete all the necessary steps required for the new approach to kick in before the next general election, expected in May 2024.

However the by-election defeat has led to the ministry of housing looking to “de-Cheshamise” the planning bill, with Jenrick already dropping hints the simplistic zoning plan will be weakened and local authorities allowed to keep some democratic control over developmental permissions.

Planning experts have suggested the idea of zones will be kept, but allowing for automatic outline permission will be dropped, with binding housing targets on local authorities also set to be scrapped.

The Section 106 reforms have also been looked at again, with Jenrick’s speech to the Local Government Association saying the tariff was now intended to be “locally set” and “locally levied”.

However this approach has also drawn criticism, as a flat rate levy could discourage development in lower value areas and fail to maximise contributions from development in higher value areas.

Johnson has repeatedly said he wants to “build, build, build” post-pandemic, but it remains to be seen if his own party will scupper the planning reforms to make this happen, and if that failure to get on with building homes helps reverse the electoral gains he made.

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