One of the themes of Conservative conference was that the government has dropped plans for a radical reform of the planning system, which was designed to get more houses built in the south east. Both Boris Johnson and the new party chairman Oliver Dowden were keen to stress this point. But, I say in the Times today, this is a mistake.
The Tories have been spooked by the Chesham and Amersham by-election where the Liberal Democrats ran hard against planning reform and took the seat on a 25 per cent swing from the Tories. Boris Johnson will pay little immediate electoral price for this U-turn. Indeed, at the next general election he’ll probably benefit from it. The 'blue wall' will be a bit more secure if the Tories’ opponents can’t use planning to chip away at it – and Johnson has no desire to court unpopularity. One cabinet minister jokes that the Prime Minister ‘counts out his opinion poll lead every morning like a miser’.
Dropping planning reform will have economic and, in time, political costs. Economically, our capricious and unpredictable planning system is a significant constraint on economic growth. With money too tight for tax cuts, planning reform would have given a free stimulus to the economy. There is also going to be a need for more development in the south east no matter how well levelling up goes.
Politically, the Tories are the party of the property-owning democracy, and live and die by this. Just look at what has happened to them in London as home ownership rates have fallen among key demographics.
By abandoning any serious attempt to significantly increase the number of homes being built in the south east the Tories are alienating their future electorate for an easier time with their current voters. It is the ultimate political short-termism.