In the week since the Tories’ crushing defeat in the Chesham and Amersham by-election, Boris Johnson and his Government are facing an uphill battle to tackle the growing backlash to their proposed planning reforms. They have three clear but tricky objectives in front of them – reassure the public, convince Conservative councillors and grassroots activists , and bring rebel Tory MPs back into the fold. Failure to do all three could spell disaster for the future of the Planning Bill and Conservative support.
In a by-election which saw Sarah Green overturn a 16,000 majority, it was clear many life-long Tory voters switched allegiance over the issue of planning reform and HS2 after the Liberal Democrat candidate ran on an overtly anti-development ticket. Many believe it is part of a growing trend that will see Conservative support dwindle across the Southeast. If you want to read more about the Chesham and Amersham by-election and our take on what it could mean for the future of the Conservatives in the Southeast, click here.
In light of the result and media outcry the Government has been in damage control mode. Amanda Milling, the Conservative Party co-chairman says the concerns over ‘planning and HS2 are heard loud and clear’. Robert Jenrick in an article for The Telegraph pushed the same rhetoric that planning reform will ‘cherish the past, adorn the present and build back better for the future’. However, as catchy as his slogan may be it is doing nothing to reassure concerned voters or combat the rising voice of opposition.
On Tuesday in the House of Commons Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Steve Reed MP called a motion for the Government to protect the rights of communities to object to individual planning applications. Under the proposed new zoning system in areas designated for ‘growth’, it will be harder for residents to oppose planning applications. The debate concluded with the motion being passed with 231 MPs for and 0 against.
It is hardly surprising Labour are putting planning reform higher on the agenda – they only had to see what happened to a Conservative safe seat. They appear to be mirroring the Lib Dem approach by appealing to voters in Tory strongholds as the defenders of green open spaces. How successful they will be is uncertain particularly given the current state of the Party, but it is a telling sign Labour has identified planning reform as a way to try and use Tory misfortunes to their advantage.
Around 100 Tory MPs are part of a WhatsApp group called ‘Planning Concern’ – whose numbers exceed the 40-odd rebels it would take to overturn the Tory majority. If the Conservatives cannot convince members of their party, they cannot begin to gain support across the House.
As it stands it is hard to see how the Bill in its current guise will make it through Parliament. If the Government want to succeed in their goal of making the biggest reforms to planning since 1947 amendments and concessions will have to be made.