Boris the builder mustn’t buckle over planning reform

29 August 2020

9:00 AM

29 August 2020

9:00 AM

The government will pass the test it has set itself: schools in England will return next week. Pupils may well have to wear masks at times, but they will be back in the classroom. Yet ministers privately acknowledge this isn’t the real challenge. The bigger question is what effect the return of schools has on the prevalence of the virus and what happens to education in the case of further local outbreaks.

The exams grading debacle and the various other summer U-turns have been damaging. As one minister concedes: ‘There’s only a limited amount of time before the “incompetence” label sticks. It hasn’t yet — but we can’t afford many more mistakes.’

The Tories are still ahead in the polls, but the past few weeks have hurt the government’s standing with its own MPs. Refusing to make a U-turn before doing just that is a spectacle they will not forget in a hurry. Whips will find it far harder to nip rebellions in the bud by saying that Downing Street simply isn’t for turning on an issue.

Many MPs will return to Westminster next week in a strange mood. One senior Tory backbencher tells me that ‘the continuing weirdness of people’s lives is taking a toll’. Many have felt that their constituents have been watching them eagle-eyed in recent months to see if they are following social distancing rules. This is particularly true for Tory MPs in areas that have been hit by local lockdown and other restrictions. One consequence of this is that they’ll be reluctant to defend unpopular decisions.

In a sign of the febrile mood, two of Boris Johnson’s most enthusiastic backers in the Tory leadership election sat down recently to make a list of which MPs were most likely to cause problems for the Prime Minister this autumn. Their verdict was that there are groups of malcontents who ‘won’t come together, but if they did it would be devastating’. This, in part, explains the reluctance to sack Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, the most formidable organiser in the Tory party. The last thing they need is him on the backbenches, and with a grievance.

The next Tory row will be over planning reform. Earlier this summer, the government set out its long-awaited strategy to simplify the planning system. The aim is to make getting planning permission quicker and more predictable, and thus make it harder for councils to block individual developments. This was never going to be popular with Tories in leafy constituencies; No. 10 has long known that it would have to expend political capital to pass these reforms. But the benefit of an 80-seat majority was meant to be the ability to push through difficult but important changes.

After all, these planning changes are — by a country mile —the most significant supply-side reform that the government is proposing. The economy cannot be revived just by fiscal measures — structural changes are needed too. A liberalised planning system would also send a reassuring message to investors about the nature of the post-Brexit, post-Covid economy and would help maintain the property-owning democracy upon which Tory electoral success depends.

It’s not as if ‘Boris the builder’ is about to concrete over England’s green and pleasant. Robert Jenrick, the Housing Secretary, has been explicit that green-belt protections will stay. Even small steps like allowing building near stations in the green belt have not been taken. At the same time, Jenrick is planning design standards to prevent the building of ugly rubbish and make sure developments fit in with their surroundings.

But these measures have not been enough to prevent opposition brewing on the Tory benches. One normally mild–mannered former cabinet minister tells me: ‘If you think A-levels were bad, wait until people get their heads round these reforms.’

Some Tory MPs are protesting against the shift to a zonal system which will see land divided into three categories — growth, renewal and protection — with development automatically allowed in the first, and given permission in principle in the second. Others are worried about the loss of council powers. Then comes the issue of where the houses will be built. Neil O’Brien, MP for Harborough and a former Treasury adviser, has attacked the algorithm that will be used to calculate where new homes are needed. The formula attempts to predict the rate of household growth in an area, then adjusts for how expensive homes are and calculates how many new properties are required. O’Brien says it will lead to a huge increase in the number of homes that have to be built in the shires, and a reduction in the numbers in big cities outside of London. He argues this is the wrong approach, because the country needs more urban density, not less.

I understand that this algorithm is due to change. The exams debacle has shown what happens when the wrong calculations are made. At the top of the housing ministry there is an acceptance that a more refined formula is needed. This should reduce some of the Tory opposition to the changes. But the government won’t deny the need to build more homes in areas where affordability is worst. There will have to be new houses in leafy Tory areas. It is delusional to think that the housing problem can be solved by developments in ‘Labour cities’ while leaving ‘Tory shires’ untouched. There is also the fact that England needs homes where people want to live. Building large numbers of houses in cities that have shrunk in recent decades is unlikely to do much good.

The problem for Johnson is that he has already expended a lot of capital with his own side. MPs who have spent the past few weeks defending the exams mess to angry constituents are less minded to defend a necessary but friendless planning bill. And they’ll also be less inclined to believe the government when it says it won’t retreat. The recent U-turns have sent out a message that this government responds to pressure. So quite a few Tory MPs will now seek to apply that pressure.

The government mustn’t buckle, though. It needs to demonstrate that it intends to use its majority to enact change. To back down now would send an awful message: that even its most important policies can be dropped. And then the accusation of incompetence really might start to stick.

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