Boris Johnson is facing discontent from Tory-controlled local authorities by ordering England’s more affluent areas to release the most land for housing.
Under a reform of planning laws, local control over the rate of building will effectively be removed. Instead, central government will “distribute” an annual target, at present 300,000 homes, among local authorities, which will be required to designate enough land to meet it.
The consultation document proposes a new “standard model” to replace the existing system under which each council negotiates its own targets with the housing department.
It also proposes a new test to see how a development will affect its surroundings and abolishes the duty to co-operate with public bodies, such as English Heritage and the Environment Agency, on cross-boundary matters, which could dismay campaigners.
While ministers will take account of local factors such as national parks and green belts, councils that have traditionally failed to make enough land available to keep pace are being put on notice.
The document states that the new system will ensure “that the least affordable places where historic undersupply has been most chronic take a greater share of future development”.
The reforms, which also limit local politicians’ power to block individual developments, have caused unease among Tory MPs and councillors.
James Jamieson, the Local Government Association’s Conservative chairman, said: “Any loss of local control over developments would be a concern.”
Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, Tory MP for the Cotswolds, said: “We do need some reform, but as people who have tried this before have found, if you are not careful it does have knock-on effects.”
“Whilst I’m all in favour of building more houses, they need to be good-quality houses, we have got to be really sure that we are not building slums of tomorrow by building today at low quality,” he told the BBC.
Hugh Ellis, a director at the Town and Country Planning Association, said the greatest factor in building decent social housing for rent was investment, not planning, and warned it was “really troubling” that “this is not a democratisation of planning”.
At present, he said, critics of a building project “get two bites of the cherry, they can have an involvement in the plan, they can comment on planning applications”, he told Today on BBC Radio 4. “Half that process is going to effectively disappear.”
Shares in Britain’s biggest listed housebuilders fell yesterday amid concerns that the changes would create years of uncertainty around planning policy while the measures were consulted on and brought forward.
Persimmon, Taylor Wimpey and Barratt Developments all lost about 4 per cent of their market value.
David O’Leary, head of policy at the Home Builders Federation, said: “The big fear is this could result in a bit of paralysis for a year or two as local authorities stop working on current local plans.” However, he said that there were no major “red flags” for the big developers, which broadly welcomed the proposals. John Tutte, the chairman of Redrow, said: “I welcome anything that streamlines the planning system. It’s long overdue.”
Anthony Codling, a housing analyst, said that if the changes were implemented it could be a huge boost to big listed developers and their shareholders because they would not need to hold such big land banks. “For the largest UK housebuilders, this could free up around £1 billion of each of their balance sheets, which could fund dividends for the future.”
Smaller builders also welcomed the changes to a complex planning system that has put them at a disadvantage.
James Forrester, managing director of Stripe Homes, said: “For too long the big house builders have had a stranglehold over the sector, allowing them to drip feed developments as they see fit in order to keep house prices and their profit margins buoyant.”
The Centre for Policy Studies said that the plan for locally agreed building design codes could reduce opposition to development and make it faster and more profitable.
“Abolishing national prescriptions will clear the way for local people to set design codes on the issues that really matter to them through neighbourhood planning,” Alex Morton, the think tank’s head of policy, said.
“More broadly, these planning reforms are an intelligent first step in reform but much more detail will be needed and many vested interests will try to slow and stop reform.”
Locals locked in a four-year battle against a proposed 3,000-home development have described the news that planning laws are to be loosened as “heartbreaking” (Tom Ball writes).
Jacky Nabb, who is opposed to the building of a new village in the Oxfordshire countryside, said that it felt as though “somebody just twisted my stomach” when she heard that the government had announced plans to slash the red tape around house building.
The proposed development near Chalgrove would feature a market, a town centre, two primary schools, a secondary school, a sixth-form college and a road bypass.
After years of opposition to the plans, residents fear that the reformed planning laws would render them powerless to prevent the development from going ahead.
Ms Nabb, a Chalgrove resident, told BBC Radio 4’s Today: “It sounds really dramatic, but it broke my heart.”
Simon Reynolds, another resident, wrote on Facebook: “Fast-tracking will simply mean the local people get even less of a say than we do at present, and we are not really listened to now. South Oxfordshire district council have paid lip service to local objections but it’s all we can do.”
He urged fellow residents to oppose the planning application “while you can” before the deadline of September 1.
“Over 200 objections so far. Let’s make it three times that. Obviously the more detailed the better, but even a short objection with relevant points is good,” Mr Reynolds added.
Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, said that claims that the draft laws for England would create a generation of low-quality homes were “complete nonsense”.
Homes England, which owns an airfield that is earmarked for the development, said that it would help to “meet the unmet housing need of the area” and protect the green belt and local jobs.