If there's one thing you'd think the Tories might have learned over the past ten years in government, it's that trying to reform the planning system will cause an almighty row. Under David Cameron, the party ended up in a bizarre fight with the Daily Telegraph and the National Trust over its plans to build more homes. Theresa May talked about reform but characteristically never quite managed it. But despite everything else that's going on for the government at the moment, ministers have rather bravely ploughed ahead with a huge planning shake-up which makes the Cameron reforms look rather boring.
Today's Planning for the Future white paper will change the way development happens, with land categorised as being suitable for Growth (areas suitable for substantial development of new homes, schools, shops, offices and hospitals), Renewal (brownfield sites and development in areas which are already built on) or Protected (green belt, areas of outstanding natural beauty, areas at risk of flooding and so on). Applications which conform to local design codes will get the automatic green light, and councils will have 30 months to develop local plans categorising land and setting out planning policy.
There is a big fight underway, but it's not with the publications and organisations that the Tories previously offended with their last set of big reforms. This time, it's architects, who have branded the proposals 'shameful' and have warned they could lead to 'slums of the future', and campaigners for more social housing.
The Royal Institute of British Architects is complaining that today's reforms don't stop two 'potentially dangerous pieces of legislation' which will come into force at the end of August, which allow development without planning permission in certain circumstances. They don't seem at all taken with the plans for design codes which are supposed to ensure homes are good-looking and fit in to the local area.
Social housing campaigners are warning that the decision to scrap section 106 agreement – by which developers are forced to include affordable housing in their plans – could mean a dramatic fall in the number of new social homes being built. The white paper proposes that section 106 and the community infrastructure levy be replaced by a new nationally-set, value-based flat rate charge called the Infrastructure Levy, which it says will 'deliver at least as much – if not more – on-site affordable housing as at present'. But it isn't very clear on how this will happen.
The white paper does tend to refer to affordable housing as a blockage to overall supply, but promises that 'we will ensure that affordable housing provision supported through developer contributions is kept at least at current levels, and that it is still delivered on-site to ensure that new development continues to support mixed communities'.
Now, big reforms always upset organisations working in a sector, which can end up being rather conservative about the way things are done. These complaints at consultation stage don't really tend to register that much with ministers, who have come to expect them. But what really undoes any reform and particularly planning reform is if Tory backbenchers start complaining about it.
The party at large has changed its attitude over the past decade, with much better recognition among MPs that they will struggle to convert younger voters to the Conservative cause if they fail to build more homes and make it easier for people to get on the housing ladder. But the emphasis on beautiful buildings in today's white paper, along with a continuing commitment to the green belt (which, let's remember, is not designated according to quality of land, but merely to stop urban sprawl) shows that the Conservatives haven't become that much more liberal on planning. They still need to stick to certain shibboleths. The question is whether ministers have done enough of that to stop yet another Tory fight about building.