“The problem with political suicides is you live to regret them,” one Conservative MP told me in the wake of the Tories’ disastrous defeat in the Chesham and Amersham by-election.
Tory MPs are clear about the prime cause of the disaster: Boris Johnson’s plans to overhaul the planning system in England and fierce local opposition to the HS2 rail link.
HS2 electoral defeats in Tory seats that snake along the HS2 route along the M40 corridor are now being priced in by Conservative strategists among communities divided in two by a new rail line which offers them little benefit as trains whizz past between London and the Midlands.
But of deeper concern are Mr Johnson’s reforms to the planning system which critics say allow “developers to build the wrong buildings in the wrong places.
“That is a theme that is running through a lot of constituencies right now – particularly in the south and in London.
“I urge the Government to think carefully about the next stage of this. We need to hold these seats as much as we need to win seats elsewhere.
“If we don’t pause to listen to what the concerns are before proceeding then we will run the risk of having this repeated.”
Mr Johnson knows he has to do something to boost numbers of new homes being built. He has pledged to build 300,000 new homes a year – over a third more than last year.
For MPs the problem is the so-called standard method which calculates how many new homes are needed in a particular area based on how many properties have been built in the past, putting intolerable pressure on constituencies in the south.
Ministers earlier this year agreed to tone down the algorithm which underlies the method to shift more of the housing targets to the north of England.
But Tories say this is not enough. Tens of thousands of new homes are still planned in areas – mainly Tory seats in the south and the Midlands – where there is not enough brownfield land to be built on.
And a new Planning Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech areas proposes dividing up council areas designated for growth, protection, or renewal to try to speed up development.
Revolt over reforms
Backbench opposition to the reforms is set to explode into the open in a four-hour-long debate on the planning reforms organised by the Labour party in the Commons on Monday next week.
“Effectively Tory seats are being treated like foie gras geese with endless housing shoved down their gullet,” Tory MP Bob Seely, who has been corralling MPs’ opposition to the reforms, told The Telegraph on Friday morning.
In Chesham and Amersham, for instance, the Liberal Democrats were able to warn voters to expect 1,715 new homes over five years, or 3,420 homes over 10 years.
What is particularly galling is that the reforms appear to allow developers to prioritise building on greenfield sites over the (often more expensive) option of cleaning up and developing former industrial or brownfield sites.
Figures from the Campaign to Protect Rural England estimate there are more than 500,000 new homes with planning permissions on 36,700 hectares of brownfield land in England.
Yet despite this, MPs say, the standard method will still demand 400,000 new homes on greenfield sites in the south.
One MP described the standard method as a “hamster wheel of doom” because the way it bases future need on what has gone before means that more and more new homes are forced on communities.
Mr Seely added: “The problem is a simple one – however planning reform is dressed up, it’s about massively increasing house building in the south and in Tory shire and southern areas. It should be about levelling-up.
“It also potentially about giving developers even more power. This gives our opponents a massive, massive stick to beat us with across many places, including in some red wall areas because they do not want to lose their green fields either.
“Yes, we need planning reform, but we do not need is a developers’ charter or the loss of local democracy. We must take communities with us. We need planning reform which is community-led, green-led and levelling-up led.”