With a rebel yell, they cried ‘Less, Less, Less’

By Aimée Howard, Account Manager

Last month’s by-election in Chesham and Amersham saw the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Green pave her way to victory with a focus on the Conservatives’ planning reforms. Liberal Democrat leaflets took the unusual approach of quoting Conservative Party grandees, Theresa May and Ian Duncan Smith, in condemning the plans as entailing “the wrong homes being built in the wrong places”. Even former-leader Lord Hague warned the reforms “could be Boris Johnson’s Poll Tax”.
 
Rumours of an increasing rebellion on the Government benches are circulating after whips cautioned that nearly 100 Conservative MPs could object to the proposals, including senior ministers. The target of 300,000 homes a year has struck fear into constituencies such as Chesham and Amersham, which boasts both green belt land and an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Under the reforms, councils will possess ‘growth sites’ where homes will be automatically approved, and ‘protection sites’ with stricter planning regulations. Further, permitted development rights will be expanded to allow the easier conversion of commercial premises into residential properties.
 
Backbenchers fear that even if the proposals were to be watered down, the Conservative’s possession of rural England is at risk. High housing targets which have not all been allocated across England, coupled with only 30 per cent of land designated protected, could lead to imbalanced housing calculations, and won’t even help the Government’s Levelling Up agenda, with construction likely to remain focused on southern towns and cities. Labour, which supports development on brownfield sites, has implied it will oppose the associated Bill, labelling it a “developer’s charter”.
 
A change to the plans that could be mooted is the idea of zonal planning. The Planning White Paper, ‘Planning for the Future’, proposes “growth zones”, with automatic outline permission for those seeking to develop in such areas, has been unpopular from the outset with local government, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) and backbenchers. An alternative measure is to merely encourage development in such areas, rather than branding it automatic, or to restrict such areas in size.
 
Further, binding housing targets could also go. Research by the CPRE on the algorithm developed to calculate housing needs illustrates Johnson’s Uxbridge seat will need to find space for 10 times more houses than Rishi Sunak’s Yorkshire one.
 
A response to the Planning White Paper is expected to be released in the autumn, in advance of a Bill either later this year or early next. Whilst the strength of the reforms is unclear at this stage, it’s evident some concessions will almost certainly be made.