On Thursday 27th of May, the Home Builders Federation (HBF) hosted their annual conference. Speakers were overwhelming positive about the state of the housing market, with many expressing their shock at its remarkable position, following the industry’s exceptional bounce back from COVID-19 and outperformance of all other sectors.
The flagship speaker was Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, who outlined the Government’s “most ambitious changes to the planning system since its creation”. The planning reforms as laid out in the Queen’s speech are expected to be brought in over the next year if they can survive a vote in Parliament, which currently is no guarantee.
The reforms are as follows: firstly, all local authorities will be expected to produce a local plan, and this process will be sped up and simplified. As part of the plan land will be allocated into zones, with sites in rapid growth areas able to quickly move to the building stage. In addition, local residents will be able to create design codes that developers must adhere to. Finally, the planning system will be digitised, with long technical documents scrapped.
The most interesting moment of the conference came when Jenrick was pressed on whether the Conservative Government would stand up to local MPs, councillors and party members in the southeast. There has been increasing tension in recent years and months between a central party that wishes to bolster home ownership through increased house building, and Tory controlled local authorities that oppose further development in their area.
Last year, the Government was forced to backtrack on plans to change the formula that determines local housing need and sets house building targets, as the new calculations resulted in increases to housing numbers for many local authorities. They had initially included the proposal in the 2020 Planning for the Future white paper, but outcry from their own backbench MPs and councillors forced a U-turn.
As expected, Jenrick declined to criticise his fellow party members, and instead outlined the three changes that would make obtaining planning permission easier for developers. His continued rhetoric is an interesting stance to take, considering politicians are often reticent to align themselves with developers, especially when NIMBY attitudes are so widespread amongst the traditional Conservative base.
However, trouble is on the horizon, with backbench MPs already beginning to signal disquiet over the proposed reforms. Former Prime Minister, Theresa May, has criticised the reduced importance of community consultation in the reforms, arguing that they threaten local democracy. Meanwhile, other Tory MPs have criticised the proposals as paving the way for green belt land to be built upon.
This unhappiness extends beyond Tory MPs as concerns about overdevelopment rise amongst local Conservative associations and voters. These attitudes were reflected in the most recent council elections, as the Conservatives lost control of Cambridgeshire, the Isle of Wight, and Tunbridge Wells. There were also losses in strongholds such as Oxfordshire, Surrey, and West Sussex. All of these areas have a high proportion of green belt land and lots of new development planned. These results will galvanise voices who want the party to move in different direction.
With the Government having such an overwhelming lead in both Parliament and poll numbers, focus has turned from the Labour Party to internal struggles. Tory rebels have already begun to flex their strength, with dissent emerging last week over cuts to foreign aid. If the Government backs down, then others may also wish to test their resolve by challenging them on planning reforms. They will feel emboldened by the support of local members and the legislation looks set to be flashpoint over the coming months.