Boris Johnson is under pressure from Tory MPs to change his planning reforms amid recriminations over a humiliating by-election defeat.
Backbench anger is building over the plans, with “legions of hostile comments” in WhatsApp groups after the Liberal Democrats snatched the Tory stronghold of Chesham and Amersham last week.
Conservative MP Sir Roger Gale told the Mirror that 80 to 100 Tories would not accept the plans as they stood – and said Tory WhatsApp chats had been “steamingly hostile” in recent days.
Ex-PM Theresa May and former Cabinet Minister Theresa Villiers have already criticised the plans, which opponents say will sideline local voices by reducing their input on individual developments.
Labour forced a non-binding Commons vote tonight on the plans, which were trailed in the Queen’s Speech in May.
Keir Starmer ’s motion – to “protect the right of communities to object to individual planning applications” – passed 231-0 because Tories were whipped to abstain.
Sir Roger said: “I have been banging on about this to Robert Jenrick and Boris Johnson for months because I am appalled at the way agricultural land is being used for development. I’m beside myself with anger about it. It’s wrong.”
The North Thanet MP added: “There are 80 to 100 backbenchers in the South/South East of England who would not accept what is being put forward. Down the road there is big trouble brewing.”
So what is the row all about? Here’s an explainer.
What are the planning reforms?
At the heart is a radical overhaul of the current planning system in England.
At the moment, every big development (and lots of small ones, right down to new garages) are examined individually in detail by a council planning committee, where elected councillors pore over blueprints and take advice from staff late into the night.
Under the reforms, land would instead be pre-divided into one of three zones – growth, renewal or protection.
And crucially, developers in growth zones would automatically have their outline plans approved – as long as they fit the requirements of a ‘Local Plan’.
At the same time, focus will shift towards giving residents more say on these ‘Local Plans’, which set out an area’s “development needs” 10 years into the future rather than scrutinise one application at a time.
Even if residents have objections, there will be “binding requirements” on councils to meet their share of the government’s 300,000-a-year new homes target.
Town halls “will have to deliver” a certain number of houses, determined nationally by the government, through their 10-year Local Plans. Targets will take account of the green belt and other “land constraints”.
Meanwhile the system would be more digitised, easier to express and use maps to ensure it’s easy to understand.
Ministers have so far only set out an initial White Paper, which will become a Planning Bill with more detail in the next year or so.
Why is the government doing this?
Critics say the current system is decades out of date and blocks homes from being built by empowering ’NIMBYs’ (Not In My Back Yard) who oppose every local scheme.
The White Paper declared: “Decades of complexity and political argument have resulted in a system which is providing neither sufficient homes nor good enough new places.”
It argued the use of ‘growth’ zones could halve the time it takes to get approval for big developments – getting spades in the ground and homes for people who need them.
At the Queen’s Speech, the government said a “simpler, faster and more modern” system would replace the one that dates to 1947.
What are the objections?
Tory critics say the plans will take away local democracy, with residents unable to object to big new developments until it’s too late.
People who see a massive tower block go up could end up being told they should’ve objected when it was at the ‘Local Plan’ stage five years ago.
Conservative Sir Bob Neill said the Government needed to “make sure that we are efficient, but not at the expense of local democracy”.
Theresa May said last month: “The White Paper proposals would bring less local involvement.
“They would reduce local democracy, remove the opportunity for local people to comment on specific developments, and remove the ability of local authorities to set development policies locally.
“I think the White Paper proposals would also lead to fewer affordable homes, because they hand developers a get-out clause.
“We need more homes to be built. We need the right homes to be built in the right places. I fear that, unless the Government look again at the White Paper proposals, what we will see is not more homes, but, potentially, the wrong homes being built in the wrong places.”
Tory MP William Wragg insisted sceptics were not “Bananas, that is to say ‘build absolutely nothing anywhere near anybody’”.
Labour also say the reforms do “nothing” to tackle land-banking by developers, who buy up plots without actually building on them.
Why has this hit a Tory nerve?
Lib Dems capitalised on Tory worries about the plan in last week’s by-election in Chesham and Amersham – which has open fields near a Tube station nestled in the Chilterns.
They issued leaflets quoting Theresa May, who said the reforms will mean the “wrong homes being built in the wrong places”.
The plans have particularly struck a nerve with southern heartland Conservatives whose voters are wary of rural development.
Defeated Tory candidate Peter Fleet grumbled on Twitter : “The Lib Dems repeatedly claimed that changes would give greedy developers “a free hand to build whatever they want” across the Chilterns.
“It did not help our cause that prominent Conservatives were quoted front and centre of the LibDem leaflets which advanced this pernicious charge!
“As a party we need to do better at conducting our policy debates in private.”
Do Tory donors have anything to do with it?
A furious row erupted after Labour claimed the plans could have something to do with the vast sums which property developers give to the Tory party.
Shadow Housing Secretary Steve Reed accused ministers of “selling out” communities in order to “pay back” Conservative Party donors from the housing sector.
He said: “It’s fair to say the Conservatives’ planning reforms are not popular with voters – and that’s not because voters are Nimbys (not in my back yard) as ministers rather offensively like to brand them – but because residents rightly want and deserve a say over how their own neighbourhoods are developed.”
Labour MP Charlotte Nicholls said: “We can see the threat to our green and pleasant land from these greedy present plans.
“I suspect the government would like to drop these proposals but this is difficult when they’ve been bought.”
In a bizarre rant denying the plans, Housing Minister Christopher Pincher accused Mr Reed of being like a “latter day witchfinder general”.
He told MPs: “He conceives of himself to be some sort of latter day witchfinder general, chief of the inquisition, constantly in search of some heresy under every stone, finding plots and conspiracy under every brick.”
Mr Pincher added: “In just a few minutes he has gone from acting like Thomas de Torquemada to being like David Icke.
“How long will it be before he runs off and jumps into his turquoise tracksuit and starts telling everybody the world is run by lizards and he is the godhead?”