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Tue, 20 October 2020

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Why is the new housing algorithm facing backlash from Conservative MPs?

Why is the new housing algorithm facing backlash from Conservative MPs?

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7 min read

Proposals to increase targets by altering the formula for calculating housing need are adding to the government’s woes over planning reform

Algorithms are haunting this government. Fresh from the exams fiasco, another situation is threatening to boil over involving the latest effort to overhaul England’s planning system. A swathe of Tory MPs and locally-elected figures are raising concerns over the proposals published in August. The ‘Planning for the Future’ white paper was unveiled with a promise of the biggest shake-up in the system since Clement Attlee’s 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. Boris Johnson used characteristically stirring rhetoric to describe the ambitions, branding the current system “outdated and ineffective” and vowing to “tear it down and start again”. 

England’s planning laws have long been a source of frustration for some Conservatives. And previous attempts at reform have been dogged by controversy. David Cameron’s efforts resulted in a battle with the National Trust and The Daily Telegraph. 

Now, with the government committed to building 300,000 new homes a year to tackle the housing crisis, ministers see radical action as imperative. 

But while the 84-page white paper caught the initial headlines – including a new zonal approach aimed at speeding up decisions on planning applications – it is a separate fast-track consultation that is most worrying backbench Tories and councillors. And, ultimately, they fear a voter backlash.

A new formula for housing need is the cause of the controversy. The consultation document says it should “ensure that diverse housing needs in all parts of the country are taken into account”. 

But, according to analysis by consultancy Lichfields, this means housebuilding would significantly increase in Conservative-controlled council areas in the suburbs and shires outside London. Meanwhile, in Labour-held local authorities, predominantly in urban areas, the number of new homes would fall slightly.

Andrew Griffith, Conservative MP for Arundel and South Downs, described it as a “mutant algorithm” in a Commons debate, despite government insiders disputing it is actually an algorithm. 

Griffith said the white paper contained “many features” he welcomed, but he said the algorithm “appears to be entirely blind to geography, which is not a great look for a planning system”.

He added: “If, as in West Sussex, much land is physically incapable of being developed or is protected in law, the algorithm appears to completely ignore this.” 

His colleague Bob Seely, MP for the Isle of Wight, argues that the new formula is “counter-productive” and “goes against the spirit of levelling up”. 

He told The House: “There’s a massive redistribution of housing from the north to the south. And if you restrict housing supply in the north then you drive up prices in the north, which seems utterly bizarre.” 

He adds: “Labour-controlled areas of the north are actually having their targets reduced relative to the south. It’s crazy.”

Seely is also concerned for newly-elected Conservative MPs in the north. “Red Wall colleagues are going to have a shock about the implications,” he says. 

Under the proposals in the white paper, primary legislation would be needed and then time allowed for councils to enact the plans – meaning the changes will take at least three years. Some have even speculated they might not happen this Parliament. 

MHCLG is proposing to give pretty much all control to developers to carpetbag the nation

However, with the separate fast-track proposals – published in a document headed ‘Changes to the Current Planning System’ – the changes could be almost immediate. 

Conservative backbencher James Sunderland, MP for Bracknell, said he welcomed the government’s ambition in the proposals but also questioned the new formula. 

“Algorithms are fine, but they are scientific tools,” he tells The House. “The algorithm doesn’t recognise previous adherence to Local Plans, it doesn’t recognise floodplains, it doesn’t recognise the fact that there are so few open spaces left in our part of the world that we need to preserve. It’s a completely inappropriate tool for the task at hand.” 

Reports suggest up to 70 Conservative MPs are unhappy with elements of the plans. Around 17 were reportedly granted an audience via Zoom with Boris Johnson to air their concerns. And The House understands that a WhatsApp group has attracted some high-profile Conservative MPs. 

But it is not just Tories in Westminster questioning the reforms. Council leaders are also enraged. In an opinion piece on Conservative Home, John Halsall, the leader of Wokingham Borough Council, does not hold back. He accuses the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) of being “sneaky” in using the white paper as a “smoke screen” for the fast-track consultation containing the new algorithm. 

Halsall is particularly dismissive of the government’s aim of ‘building beautiful’ as well as ensuring they meet housebuilding targets. 

He writes: “Meaningless virtue signalling, such as ‘expecting new development to be beautiful’… hides the reality that the MHCLG is proposing to give pretty much all control to developers to carpetbag the nation.” 

He concludes by making a plea: “Before this becomes yet another algorithm shambles, rip up this white paper and reform the planning system in accordance with the manifesto.” 

And it is not only politicians that are unhappy. Countryside charity CPRE has also raised doubts. “We are concerned about the loss of local democracy and accountability,” says Paul Miner, CPRE’s strategic planning lead. “At the moment it can take a number of years to get a [councils’] Local Plan into place but the government is planning to compress the timescale into two-and-a-half years. And the time that is spent on consulting the public about planning applications will also be compressed.” 

He adds: “What’s particularly concerning about this is it will make it more difficult for the public to hold developers to account.” 

CPRE has done its own modelling, which tallies with Lichfields’ conclusions. “It will mean massive loss of countryside when there’s plenty of brownfield land within urban areas which should be prioritised,” says Miner. “And if you’re building in more isolated rural areas, then people will need to rely more on cars to get around.” 

Architects have also attacked the proposals, branding them “shameful”. Along with an extension of permitted development rights – meaning developers no longer need to get ‘normal’ planning permission to demolish and rebuild former flats, shops or offices as new homes – RIBA’s president Alan Jones said there is “every chance they could lead to the development of the next generation of slum housing”. Housing charities also criticised scrapping Section 106 and replacing it with a new infrastructure levy over fears it will lead to less affordable housing. 

Meanwhile, Keir Starmer branded the plans a “developers’ charter”. 

Planning reform is often controversial. But the growing backlash – particularly within its own ranks – will likely be a worry to Conservative HQ. As Seely says: “I think we’ll get punished [next May]. We need to be making friends and influencing people, not winding up our natural supporters and Red Wall Conservatives.”

So are the critics being listened to? At the moment, MHCLG appears to be holding firm. When contacted by The House, a spokesperson said: “These claims are misguided. We’re overhauling the country’s outdated planning system to deliver the high-quality, sustainable homes communities need. Community involvement and control is at the centre of the proposals … so local people will be consulted from the very beginning when local plans are developed – making the system more democratic.” 

On the issue of the new formula, the spokesperson added: “While local housing need proposals provide a guide for councils, they will still need to consider local circumstances to decide how many homes should be delivered in their areas.” 

Housing minister Christopher Pincher and housing secretary Robert Jenrick have acknowledged the naysayers. In a speech to the Creating Communities conference, Jenrick said: “I recognise the importance of getting it right, and of listening to the opinions of everyone who wishes to engage constructively and who genuinely shares our desire to build homes and to build these well.” 

Plenty of backbench Conservatives and councillors will be hoping his promise to listen is genuine.

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