Chesham and Amersham defeat leads to unplanned Tory revolt on planning “reforms”

The Tories are revolting. After Thursday’s dramatic loss to the Lib Dems in Chesham and Amersham, MPs are warning Boris Johnson that the proposed planning reforms will lose them seats. Many Conservatives didn’t like the proposals before Thursday but I suspect many MPs hadn’t paid attention amid the challenges of the pandemic and other excuses. Some in the South East had given voice to their concerns but there has been no open rebellion until now. And now that is mostly on WhatsApp according to the Times.

HS2 certainly came home to roost on Thursday. Protected areas in the Chilterns, north Bucks and Warwickshire lose out badly from this line that brings those areas no benefits. There is still time to cancel this madness and restore the landscape. But I don’t think it will happen.

The HS2 row has spilled over to into planning. The government’s proposed planning reforms strip powers from local councils. It is a Lego approach to planning. Standard blocks. No local sensitivity.

The Tories lost in Chesham and Amersham because they thought they would win against a great candidate and a great campaign. But planning is now the Tories Achille’s Heel. In many areas, it could help us win more seats.

There are welcome points in the planning proposals published last year. A digital planning system. Simpler, quicker local plans. Strict design codes. But the government’s intention of diminishing the voices of council and communities in decision making is unwelcome, including to many Conservatives. Ministers are aiming for a tick box planning system where rules are binding on decision makers. They also want huge increases in housebuilding – a near doubling current targets in the South East although there has been some backtracking on this since proposals were published last August.

Boris Johnson and Robert Jenrick have claimed that they are cutting red tape not standards for development. They have railed at the complexity of the planning system and its discretionary nature. That’s making difficult local decisions to you and me. I sit on one of Shropshire’s two planning committees and I know how difficult those decisions can be. We can certainly simplify aspects of the planning system. What we can’t simplify in a democratic society – a society that thrives on consensus and is weakened by conflict – is the discussions on getting the right developments in the right place. But BJ and RJ want us councillors to rubber stamp developments. Over stretched planning departments will be happy with the reduced workload. Planners and councillors will be furious that they can’t do the best for their communities.

That’s why Conservatives are revolting in the South East. The formulaic approach so desired by box tickers in government is set to increase housebuilding in the south, east and south west. Despite the political verbiage on levelling up, it will do nothing much for the north.

It is inevitable that the shout of NIMBIES will arise. We need more housing. We need more affordable housing. But we also must create well designed places that nurture new communities. The proposed planning reforms are about building more, more quickly. Not building communities more successfully.

It is numbers game to meet the Tory pledge of 300,000 new homes a year.

And revulsion at that is why the Tories are revolting across the leafy shires.

The planning bill in brief

The planning bill will demand all land in England is allocated in the local plan into one of three categories: Growth, Renewal and Protection:

  • Growth areas will include new towns, brownfield sites, urban extensions and clusters near hubs such as universities. Sites in the zone will be deemed to have outline planning permission. Councils will have no powers to veto individual projects if they meet a basic set of standards.
  • Renewal areas will be existing built-up areas where smaller scale development is appropriate, including “gentle densification” infill of residential areas and development in town centres. Development in rural areas such as small sites within or on the edge of villages could be included. A statutory presumption in favour of giving permission for suitable developments will apply.
  • Protected areas will include the Green Belt, AONBs, conservation areas, local wildlife sites, areas of significant flood risk, important areas of green space, and just maybe gardens.

Extracted from a briefing from CPRE South East.

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem councillor in Shropshire. He blogs at andybodders.co.uk. He is Friday editor of Lib Dem Voice.

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2 Comments

  • Shirley Leighton 19th Jun '21 - 8:09pm

    Well done congratulations

  • neil James sandison 20th Jun '21 - 8:06am

    Good article planning when done well supported by resident engagement can in fact enhance an area . poor planning which is top down rushed and sidelines the community leaves a very bad taste in the mouth and is usually unsustainable in terms of biodiversity and infrastructure . It also removes accountability from local council members which will become more apparent as we move to more distant unitary authorities .

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