Boris Johnson used the Queen's Speech on Tuesday to set out the policy reform he plans to do now that the pandemic is easing. This was largely centred on attempting to flesh out the ‘level up’ agenda through a focus on skills, industry and planning reform. It's the latter bill that poses the greatest risk. Already Tory MPs have come out in opposition to what ministers say will be the biggest shake-up of the planning system in over 70 years.
The government hopes the relaxation of the rules will pave the way for a home-building boom that will help it hit its goal of 300,000 new homes per year, ease the current housing crisis and get more young people onto the property ladder. This is viewed as electorally advantageous to the Conservatives given it has long been said that the key to Tory success is a property-owning democracy. It is no coincidence that 86 per cent of current Conservative seats have above-average levels of home ownership, while 70 per cent of Labour seats have below-average levels.
However, not all MPs are convinced – particularly those in traditionally Tory seats in the south. For all the good headlines about Tory wins in the local elections in the north and midlands, the party had a fairly disappointing string of results in the Home Counties and the London commuter belt. As well as Labour making inroads in David Cameron’s old Oxfordshire base of Chipping Norton, the party suffered losses in Surrey and Cambridgeshire. These MPs are therefore growing more nervous over No. 10’s focus on the Red Wall – and planning is an issue which tends to divide the two groups.
Rather than see Labour’s gains in Blue Wall constituencies as a reason to get behind a new regime of mass house-building, traditional Tories believe the opposite – that planning reform could not win them voters, but lose them. In seats in the commuter belt, Conservative MPs complain that new housing has little electoral gain in the short term.
This, they argue, is because new, more affordable housing tends to bring younger, Labour-voting adults to their constituencies, which undermines their majorities. On top of this, often the Liberal Democrats will oppose the plans locally and win over traditionally Tory voters. It is no coincidence that while Red Wall Tories have their own ‘blue barricade’ WhatsApp group, MPs in the south tend to liaise on the ‘housing algorithm group’ which was initially formed to counter plans for a formula designed to boost housing targets in these constituencies. Now it’s seen as the informal caucus for southern MPs.
So, will the opposition be great enough to stop Johnson's plans? Theresa May was among those publicly criticising the proposals yesterday – saying the government’s Planning Bill would put the 'wrong homes in the wrong places'. Following the local elections, the Prime Minister's authority has been strengthened so there is a view among his supporters that it will go through even if the plans have to be tweaked. The bigger risk is that after mixed results in the local elections, the process of doing so only heightens the north/south divide within the party.