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Tory rebels force Boris Johnson into climbdown on planning

Controversial planning reforms may be watered down by the Government after whips warned that almost 100 Tory MPs could rebel and vote against them.

Boris Johnson has championed sweeping changes intended to enable 300,000 homes a year to be built.

But the plans have sparked a ferocious backlash among Conservatives, with former Prime Minister Theresa May warning they will create ‘the wrong homes in the wrong places’.

Until now, the PM has refused to give in, saying last month that much of the criticism resulted from a ‘misunderstanding’ of the proposals.

Boris Johnson has championed sweeping changes intended to enable 300,000 homes a year to be built

But with opposition growing against what critics fear will lead to the electoral suicide of a ‘developers’ free-for-all’ in Tory constituencies, No 10 is paving the way for a tactical retreat.

Whips are said to have warned Mr Johnson that more than 90 of his MPs, including several ministers, have raised serious concerns.

The reforms were thrown into sharp relief by the Tories’ shock defeat at the Chesham and Amersham by-election in June, in which the Lib Dems campaigned aggressively on planning.

A Government source said ministers would be in ‘listening mode’ on the issue when Parliament returns in September, adding: ‘We’ll listen and we’ll move.

‘We can take some of the edges off that are upsetting people and still get some important changes through.

‘The bottom line is we have got to get more houses built. The average age of a first-time buyer is 34. We have to get that down and give younger people a chance to get a stake in society.’

Former Cabinet minister Damian Green said some local control had to be retained, adding: 'The key issues are building homes where levelling-up is needed, such as the North, and a proper level of local control about individual decisions'

Former Cabinet minister Damian Green said some local control had to be retained, adding: ‘The key issues are building homes where levelling-up is needed, such as the North, and a proper level of local control about individual decisions’

Tory rebels welcomed the softening of tone, but warned major changes would be needed to guarantee the passage of the Planning Bill this autumn.

One leading rebel said: ‘If this ends up being a developers’ free-for-all, it will be utterly toxic for Tory MPs everywhere – not just in the South East.

‘If ministers get this wrong we can kiss goodbye to our new electoral success.

‘We will be doing the Lib Dems’ job for them across the Midlands, the South and the suburbs where we’ve had massive growth in recent years.

‘People are fed up. Being seen as the party concreting over our countryside or ramming housing estates into suburban green spaces will be electoral suicide. Boris needs to get a grip on this.’ Rebels want the idea of mandatory house-building targets replaced with voluntary ones.

Johnson approval rating plummets 

The Prime Minister’s approval ratings among Tory activists have plummeted since he tried to dodge self-isolation, a survey found yesterday.

The poll by the Conservative Home website found Boris Johnson’s rating had dropped from 39.2 per cent last month to just 3.4 per cent, taking him into the bottom five members of the Cabinet.

The fall follows controversy over Mr Johnson’s attempt to avoid self- isolation after he was identified as a close contact of Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who tested positive last month. The PM and Chancellor Rishi Sunak initially joined a Cabinet Office ‘pilot scheme’ that would have allowed them to avoid quarantine. But hours later, the two men agreed to isolate after a public backlash.

In the survey, only Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick, Conservative Party co-chairman Amanda Milling and Education Secretary Gavin Williamson are rated below Mr Johnson.

The slump also follows controversy over vaccine passports. Two months ago, the PM had a net approval rating of 55.6.

In contrast, Mr Sunak’s reputation appears to be almost unaffected. He remains the second most popular member of the Cabinet with Tory activists, with a net approval rating of 74.1.

 

They also want ministers to drop ‘growth zones’ in which planning applications would be automatically approved.

Isle of Wight MP Bob Seely said the scale of the revolt reflected the fact MPs were ‘listening to their residents’, adding: ‘Many people who care about their communities and their environment are very concerned. The system needs reform, but the result must be to empower communities, not silence them.’

He highlighted the issue of landbanking, in which developers acquire planning permission for a plot, but instead of building homes wait for its value to rise and sell it for a profit. 

Mr Seely said: ‘The system is already stacked in favour of developers, who too often simply landbank permissions and build in opposition to communities. I fear that any Bill that results in mass loss of greenfield and intense development in suburbs will run into significant opposition.’ 

Former Cabinet minister Damian Green said some local control had to be retained, adding: ‘The key issues are building homes where levelling-up is needed, such as the North, and a proper level of local control about individual decisions.

‘We have to drop centrally planned development zones, and we have to get a grip on developers’ landbanking.’

MPs fear the new system of nationally imposed targets could lead to overheating in the South, while earmarking too little construction in the North.

The reforms would require councils to divide areas into three categories – protected, renewal and growth. Protected areas such as the Green Belt would get limited development.

In renewal areas, councils would be told to look favourably on development. Applications that meet agreed local plans in growth zones would be approved automatically.

Labour, which favours development of housing on former industrial ‘brownfield’ sites, has indicated it will oppose the legislation, describing it as a ‘developers’ charter’. 


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