It’s taken just 12 months for Boris Johnson to create a government of sleaze 

It took the last Tory government the best part of 18 years to become mired in sleaze, but Boris Johnson’s administration is smelling of it already. Whether doling out lucrative contracts, helping billionaire property developers cut costs, or handing out lifetime seats in the House of Lords, the guiding principle seems to be brazen cronyism, coupled with the arrogance of those who believe they are untouchable and that rules are for little people.

Jonathan Freedland www.theguardian.com 

This week came word of at least £156m of taxpayers’ money wasted on 50 million face masks deemed unsuitable for the NHS. They were bought from a private equity firm through a company that had no track record of producing personal protective equipment – or indeed anything for that matter – and that had a share capital of just £100. But this company, Prospermill, had a crucial asset. It was co-owned by one Andrew Mills, adviser to the government, staunch Brexiteer and cheerleader for international trade secretary, Liz Truss.

Somehow Prospermill managed to persuade the government to part with £252m, boasting that it had secured exclusive rights over a PPE factory in China. Just one problem. The masks it produced use ear loops, when only masks tied at the head are judged by the government to be suitable for NHS staff. If the government wanted to spend £156m on masks for the nation’s kids to play doctors and nurses, this was a great deal. But in the fight against a pandemic, it was useless.

All this has come to light thanks to the Good Law Project, which is challenging through the courts what it calls “the government’s £15bn supermarket sweep approach to PPE procurement”. As if to remind us of the necessity of judicial review – a process now threatened with “reform” by this government – the group have initiated such proceedings over several deals with suppliers with no conspicuous experience or expertise in PPE, including a pest controller and a confectionery wholesaler. But this latest one is the biggest.

I asked Jolyon Maugham, who runs the project, whether what he had seen amounted to corruption. He doesn’t use that word himself, preferring to note that “mutual back-scratching” tends to be how it works in this country. “You have contracts awarded to the wrong people because of incompetence, and you have contracts awarded to the wrong people because the wrong people knew what ears to whisper into.”

Such whispers are becoming the background noise of this government. This week the housing secretary Robert Jenrick was asked about his encounter with Richard Desmond at a Tory fundraising dinner last November, at which Desmond showed the cabinet minister a video of the housing development he wanted to build. Jenrick said he wished he “hadn’t been sat next to a developer at an event and I regret sharing text messages with him afterwards”, which rather glossed over the key fact: namely, that Jenrick promptly rushed through a decision on the project, the speed of which allowed Desmond’s company to avoid paying roughly £40m in tax to the local council. That move was later designated “unlawful”, and Jenrick was forced to overturn his decision.

It would be nice to think that episode was a one-off, but it’s hard to do so when developers have given £11m in donations to the Conservatives since Johnson arrived in Downing Street just one year ago.

One can hardly blame entrepreneurs and go-getters for wanting to get cosy with Johnson’s ministers. They see how business is done. They’ve noticed the seven government contracts together worth nearly £1m that were awarded in the course of 18 months to a single artificial intelligence startup, an outfit that just so happened to have worked for Dominic Cummings on the Vote Leave campaign.

The company is called Faculty and, handily, the government minister tasked with promoting the use of digital technology, Theodore Agnew, has a £90,000 shareholding in it. Any suggestion of a conflict of interest is breezily brushed aside. More conveniently still, Faculty’s chief executive, Marc Warner, has attended at least one meeting of Sage, the scientists’ group advising the government on coronavirus. Better yet Warner’s brother, Ben, works at Downing Street as a data scientist and has been a regular at Sage where, as one attendee put it to the Guardian, he “behaved as Cummings’ deputy”. Faculty insists all “the proper processes” have been followed in the awarding of their contracts.

Meanwhile, a political consultancy firm with strong ties to both Cummings and Michael Gove managed to win an £840,000 contract without any open tendering process at all. Public First is a small research company, but it is run by James Frayn, an anti-EU comrade of Cummings going back two decades, and his wife Rachel Wolf, the former Gove adviser who co-wrote the Tory manifesto for last year’s election. The government says it could skip the competitive tendering stage because emergency regulations applied, thanks to Covid. Except the government itself recorded some of Public First’s work as related to Brexit (it now says this was an accounting anomaly and that all the work related to the pandemic).

To confirm the new order, you might take a look at the prime minister’s list of nominations to the House of Lords. Besides his brother Jo, you’ll also spot former advisers, donors, Brexiters, and longtime Johnson pal Evgeny Lebedev, the Russian-born billionaire owner of London’s Evening Standard. It’s all terribly cosy. “It’s a pattern of appointing your mates, that’s the common thread,” says Labour’s Rachel Reeves. When fighting a pandemic, you don’t want “contracts for contacts”, she says; you want to look for “the best people, not whether they voted leave or made donations”.

Why is the government behaving this way? An obvious explanation is the 80-seat majority it won in December. The knowledge that parliamentary defeat is a distant prospect, and that you will not face the voters for four long years, can translate into complacency, even a sense of impunity. Johnson’s sparing of Cummings and Jenrick, when a more fragile prime minister would surely have felt compelled to fire them both, has emboldened those individuals and their watching colleagues. They’re not about to start shooting people on Fifth Avenue, as Trump once boasted, but like the US president, they believe they can get away with anything.

That fits with the credo Johnson and Cummings had even before they bagged their majority. Johnson was hardly a stickler for probity to start with; his attitude to the rules, grandly branded a libertarian philosophy by his pals, has long been elastic, at least when it comes to himself and those around him. As for Cummings, his breach of the lockdown during the pandemic’s most grave phase leaves no doubt: he sees the rules as applying to lesser mortals, not him.

This week, research published in the Lancet proved how devastating “the Cummings effect” has been for public faith in the government’s handling of the pandemic. Through their cronyism, their cavalier disregard for basic propriety, Johnson and his circle are draining trust at a time when it is essential to the public health. One day that will matter for the Conservatives’ political fortunes. But it matters for the rest of us right now.

• Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist

• The Scott Trust, the ultimate owner of the Guardian, is the sole investor in GMG Ventures, which is a minority shareholder in Faculty

‘Wishful thinking’: the dangers of UK hype during Covid-19

“Boris Johnson repeatedly promised to bring forward “world-class” and “world-beating” systems to tackle Covid-19 – most notably for testing and contact tracing by the beginning of June, a system that is sufficiently patchy that this week Blackburn with Darwen council had to launch its own.”

They were billed by the UK health secretary, Matt Hancock, as “lifesaving” and “hugely beneficial”: two new coronavirus tests that claim to deliver results within 90 minutes, promoted enthusiastically to the public with the help of front pages in the Times, the i and the Daily Mail, which declared they would “transform the war on corona”.

The suppliers are little known, evaluation data is not yet available, and it is unclear how effective the tests are outside hospital settings, not least because taking blood or swabs is difficult for non-medics.

But it is an infectious optimism that is hard to shake: during the dismal and downright frightening fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic, upbeat scientific or medical claims have been made by politicians and taken up the media, few of which have been borne out to the degree or timeline originally mooted.

There may be moments when hype is justified, but the reality, say experts, is that the crisis constitutes a long hard slog in which ordering people to stay indoors and shutting down the economy has had more impact than any medical or technological advance so far.

Some blame politicians for being a little too eager to leap on positive stories in a time of crisis, with the boosterish health secretary often appearing particularly keen. It was Hancock who claimed a contact-tracing app would be ready in England in mid-May. “NHS phone app holds key to lifting lockdown” said one Sunday paper splash in April. That app is yet to arrive, with the original version scrapped entirely.

Then there was the 100,000-a-day test target, described as “Matt’s target” – though allies of Hancock say the principal aim was to concentrate minds on increasing tests. The figure was met briefly at the end of May before falling again. Yet within days the declared target rose to 200,000, and last month to 500,000 a day. The reality? The UK is processing about 170,000 daily tests on average, far lower than some other countries.

But the problem of over-promising and hype flows from the top.

Boris Johnson repeatedly promised to bring forward “world-class” and “world-beating” systems to tackle Covid-19 – most notably for testing and contact tracing by the beginning of June, a system that is sufficiently patchy that this week Blackburn with Darwen council had to launch its own.

Officials, too, have succumbed. Prof Sharon Peacock, director of the national infection service at Public Health England, said in March that mass antibody testing would “absolutely” be available within days. Ministers had bought 3.5m of the tests but a fortnight later had to admit they did not work.

Why does the reality so often fail to match the promises and breathless PR?

Alex Thomas, a former civil servant and private secretary to the late cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood, said: “While there is a natural optimism bias in all of us, this government has a tendency to be more comfortable about talking about the sunlit uplands, and that inevitably feeds through.”

Some scientists bemoan cutbacks in scientific advice to government over the past decade and an absence of public health specialists among the most senior scientific advisers, saying they weaken the system and the ability to deliver on abstract aims.

There are also criticisms that the UK has become, in the words of one scientist, “far too disengaged from Europe and globally”, and that there remains a lingering sense of British exceptionalism. In April, Jenny Harries, the deputy chief medical officer for England, claimed the UK was “an international exemplar in preparedness” as the death toll was soaring. England ended up with the highest excess deaths in Europe.

An emerging low-level nationalism endemic in media coverage as well as politics focuses intensely on British knowhow and developments, in the fashion of a major sporting event – whether in the much-vaunted attempt by Dyson to build ventilators for Britain, which ultimately collapsed amid lack of need, or in the focus on UK progress in developing a vaccine, while coverage of foreign efforts is more muted.

As well as ministers’ desire to emphasise the upside – likely a mixture of spin and natural, even desperate, optimism – scientists and researchers are under intense pressure to succeed in research, generate good publicity and win additional funding.

The result, says Martin McKee, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Research, is an increase in “wishful thinking”. The academic points to research published four years ago that showed a dramatic increase in the use of positive language such as “robust”, “novel”, and “unprecedented”, in papers published between 1974 and 2014.

Compounding the problem is the sheer complexity of coronavirus virology, which often runs up against simplistic public understandings of science. Prof Deenan Pillay, a virologist at University College London, argues the usefulness of antibody tests has been misunderstood.

The problem, he says, is that after infection “the level of antibodies goes up, but then they come down”, adding: “There was this idea that if you tested positive, you were a superman, immune for life, but that’s not true. It turned out to be hype.”

As a result, related ideas for immunity passports that could let some people return to near normal lives – and these made a splash in the Guardian – were talked up as a possibility by Hancock but did not ultimately come to fruition. The latest evidence lends further credence to the possibility that antibodies drop off significantly within weeks.

Excitement about a vaccine is understandable – in particular Oxford University’s, whose initial trials generated wall-to-wall media coverage last month. “Vaccine for Christmas,” reported the Daily Mail and others, although the university had previously said it could be ready by September, a date set to be quietly missed.

But again Pillay cautions over expectations out of kilter with reality. “We have unrealistic expectations of what a vaccine might do – one or two shots and you are immune. But maybe it will be more like flu where you need a shot every year, the vaccine is only 70% effective and flu is still with us.”

The senior scientist says such over-optimism is not unique to the pandemic, but it has been brought into sharp relief by the intensity of the crisis and the dominance of the story in the news.

“There has long been a glorifying and over-emphasising of scientific advances – and it’s been increasing over time. In a way, everyone’s to blame, from scientists, politicians, investors [to] the media,” he said.

Rising tourist tide swamps the coast

New government figures show that the coronavirus R rate could be above 1 for three regions across England as thousands of people are expected to flock to the coast to enjoy hot weather this weekend.

According to data released on Friday, the R value is estimated to range between 0.8 and 1.1 for London, the northwest and the southwest.

Will Humphries, Southwest Correspondent www.thetimes.co.uk 

Crowded beaches and fishing villages in Cornwall and Devon can cause despair among residents during a normal summer but with a virus added into the mix, the fear and anger at incomers has reached fever pitch.

With fewer options to holiday abroad, a wave of visitors has hit the tourist hotspots of the southwest. Residents, businesses and lifeguards have likened the scenario to an endless bank holiday weekend. While the increase in visitors is helping some businesses, with some takings up 70 per cent on July last year, locals are concerned by the numbers cramming into the narrow streets and country lanes.

“It’s hell,” said Jenny Dean, 58, who has lived in St Ives since 1974.

Banners and signs ask people to “Please Keep To Your Left” along shopping streets but these were ignored by crowds when The Times visited on Thursday. “This is the worst it has ever been,” Mrs Dean said. “I know a lot of locals who aren’t going out. We don’t feel safe.”

The sentiment was repeated by other residents across the counties.

Toni Potter, 59, a gallery assistant who has lived in St Ives for 32 years, said that she did her food shopping in town at 7am “then I don’t go back”. She added: “We do want tourists but this is so extreme.”

Devon has the lowest Covid-19 death rate in England (21.8 deaths per 100,000 people) while Cornwall & Isles of Scilly has the fourth lowest (27.1 per 100,000).

Out of 182 areas in England, Scotland and Wales, Cornwall ranks 175th for infection levels (with 162 cases per 100,000 of the population) and Devon 176th (155 per 100,000). The only places in England with a lower infection rate are Dorset and North East Lincolnshire. Despite local fears, Devon and Cornwall have so far had only a very slight increase in recorded cases at the end of last month, with the daily average rising to three from about two.

Many holidaymakers were enjoying ice creams along the promenade at St Ives on Thursday while pubs and restaurants were doing a brisk trade.

However, Scott Stevens, 48, a construction company owner from Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire, visiting with his wife, told The Times: “It’s not a relaxing holiday at all. It’s uncomfortable. You have to book everything three weeks in advance and there are no tables available in the restaurants.”

Tensions between locals and tourists have boiled over on occasions. A man was arrested on suspicion of assault last week for allegedly attacking two lifeboat volunteers in St Ives when they asked a driver parked in a space reserved for them to move his car.

A 14-year-old boy was attacked with a bottle on Perranporth beach, in north Cornwall, last month after asking tourists to pick up the plastic cups they had dropped. Police said that the suspects, who have not been caught, had “London accents”.

In the sailing harbour of Fowey, on the south coast of Cornwall, the pasty shops have been proving popular and the second-home owners have been staying longer.

Justine Hambly, 51, who runs Any Old Lights, an interior design shop, said that visitor numbers were on a par with Regatta Week, adding: “I think people could be more respectful of the rules. I don’t think it’s through unpleasantness, they just come on holiday and go into a completely different mode. People aren’t wearing masks or keeping their distance.”

Holly Lovelock, 21, an assistant at the Seasalt clothes shop, said that the beaches were so “incredibly packed” that she would avoid them until after summer.

As businesses less affected by social distancing make hay while the sun shines, places such as pubs and clothes shops are struggling to recoup income lost in lockdown.

Carol Tambling, landlady of the Lugger pub in Fowey, said: “We can only book so many people in for food. We missed Easter, we are missing Regatta Week and the Christmas market is looking like it will get cancelled.”

Salcombe, on the south coast of Devon, has been disturbed by unprecedented levels of antisocial behaviour and litter.

Jeff Gillard, 42, an ambulance medic, said that the town has resembled a “war zone” of broken glasses and takeaway boxes most mornings. “I wouldn’t say the numbers of people are hugely different, it just seems to be a different type of visitor,” he said. “The middle of Salcombe feels like a bit of a no-go zone from 10pm.”

Anthony Mangnall, the Conservative MP for Totnes, has promised “more police will be on the streets this weekend to deal with antisocial behaviour”.

The beaches of north Cornwall have been the busiest that many RNLI lifeguards can remember, with 14,000 counted at Perranporth in one day last week.

Tommy Job, 30, of the Watering Hole pub on the beach, said that antisocial behaviour had been worse in lockdown: “People were having big parties . . . now things are back to more normal. I think some locals have a chip on their shoulder because they had the place to themselves for a while. It always gets busy, it’s nothing abnormal.”

National Grid pays Sizewell B owner for halving power output

Meanwhile EDF continues to work “at pace” constructing Hinkley Point C……….

Emily Gosden, Energy Editor www.thetimes.co.uk 

EDF will be paid between £55 million and £73 million for halving power output from Britain’s biggest nuclear reactor this summer under an agreement to prevent blackouts.

National Grid, the company with the task of keeping Britain’s lights on, said that it had asked the French energy group to continue to limit generation from Sizewell B in Suffolk until late September. That is the maximum period negotiated in a contract that The Times revealed in May had been agreed to help to prevent the network being overwhelmed by excess power during the pandemic.

Electricity demand dropped by as much as a fifth at the height of the lockdown and, although it is returning to normal levels, National Grid said that it was lower than expected and that there was a risk of a second wave that could suppress demand again. Keeping Sizewell operating at half-output enabled it to “prepare for such an event at minimal cost”.

National Grid needed to reduce output from Sizewell so that it could free space on the network to run more flexible types of power plants needed to help to balance supply and demand. It was also concerned that the network could not cope if Sizewell, the biggest single generating unit in Britain, were to fail while operating at full capacity.

Juliet Davenport, of Good Energy, a renewable energy supplier, claimed that the contract was “evidence that inflexible, expensive nuclear power is not fit for the clean energy system we need”.

National Grid said that it was operating the system “as efficiently as possible”.

Boris Johnson threatened with legal action over delays to energy project

Eurotunnel rival to Aquind energy project is left in limbo

Sean O’Neill, Chief Reporter www.thetimes.co.uk 
Boris Johnson has been threatened with legal action over delays to an energy project amid concern that his ministers are focusing on a rival scheme backed by Tory donors.Eurotunnel’s £600 million plan to lay a cable linking the British and French power grids through the Channel Tunnel has been delayed at a cost of hundreds of millions of pounds in lost revenue. The Times has seen a legal letter to the body overseeing the tunnel, copied to the prime minister, which warns: “Any further delay in deciding whether to proceed with the project would further increase this loss, forcing Eurotunnel to seek compensation by using all legal means at its disposal.”

Ministers backed the tunnel scheme in 2017 and the company has built converter stations, manufactured the 1gw cable and received the go-ahead from French regulators. “They’re ready to go and no one knows what the hold-up is,” a Whitehall source said.

There is concern in the energy sector that the government is favouring an undersea interconnector proposed by Aquind, a large donor with close ties to the Conservative Party.

Aquind’s owner, whose identity had been hidden by Companies House, is Viktor Fedotov, a former executive in the Russian oil industry. One of Aquind’s directors is the Tory activist and donor Alexander Temerko, 53, who ran a Russian state arms business and was an oil executive before he fled Russia in 2004. Since 2011 Mr Temerko or companies he is associated with have given £1.3 million to the Conservatives, including sums to five cabinet ministers or their constituency parties.

Eurotunnel, which makes no political donations, needs final safety approval from UK officials on the Channel Tunnel intergovernmental commission. Britain missed a July 24 deadline for a decision, blaming Covid. In its legal letter Eurotunnel calls that “a delaying tactic”. Eurotunnel would not comment on a leaked letter but a spokesman said: “The question should be why British experts are still delaying their approval when the French safety authority has given its green light. Could it be related to Aquind or other interconnector projects, or is it just shocking inefficiency?”

Aquind is a British-registered firm and political donations are properly made and declared. The planning decision on the Aquind scheme — a 2gw cable it claims would provide up to 5 per cent of UK power — will be made by the energy minister, Kwasi Kwarteng.

A transport department spokesman said that assessment of the Eurotunnel project was continuing and: “We will not compromise on rail safety.”

Behind the story
Ofgem and the government have encouraged the construction of “interconnectors” such as Aquind’s between Britain and the continent to improve the security of the power supply and support the shift to greener energy (Emily Gosden writes).

When output from British wind and solar farms is low, French nuclear power can be imported; when it is high, France can use British electricity.

Most interconnectors are laid along the seabed but there is a plan for one, called Eleclink, to go through the Channel Tunnel. Interconnector operators sell the right to use the cable to international electricity traders.

National Grid is building further links with France, Norway and Denmark, scheduled for completion this year, next year and in 2023 respectively.

[There is also the FAB interconnector, closer to home, scheduled to make landfall in the lime Kiln car park Budleigh Saterton, then wend its way to a converter station near the airport. This appears stalled at the moment.]

Fresh calls for Metropolitan police to investigate Cummings’ Durham trip

Meg Hillier, the Labour chair of the public accounts committee, said: “There is also more evidence now that the police should look into, Durham police and, given the alleged travel from London, the Met police too.”

Remember the Durham Dash? – Owl

Matthew Weaver www.theguardian.com 

The Metropolitan police is facing fresh calls to investigate Dominic Cummings’ decision to leave London for Durham at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

The calls come after the Guardian and the Daily Mirror revealed that Dave and Clare Edwards, two of four people who claim to have seen Cummings on 19 April, have complained to the police watchdog, accusing the Durham force of not fully investigating their claims.

Meg Hillier, the Labour chair of the public accounts committee, said: “There is also more evidence now that the police should look into, Durham police and, given the alleged travel from London, the Met police too.”

Under questioning from Hillier at the liaison committee in May, Boris Johnson said he had seen evidence that proves his chief adviser did not make a second trip to Durham in April, as four witness have now claimed. But he refused to agree to release it to the cabinet secretary for independent verification.

Cummings previously claimed that an allegation that he was in Durham on 19 April was false and that he had evidence to prove he was in London that day. On Wednesday Downing Street said it considers the matter closed.

Hillier said: “If the PM just publishes the evidence he’s seen there would be no need for police time to be spent on this – the PM should put truth and public trust first and publish what he’s seen.”

Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, said: “The public have a right to know whether the prime minister’s chief adviser made a second lockdown-breaching trip to Durham, and it is surely therefore only right that this evidence is produced.”

She added: “If Dominic Cummings was in London during both the morning and afternoon of the 19 April, and not in Durham as has been alleged, I’m sure that the prime minister will welcome this opportunity to set the record straight.”

The London assembly has also called on the Met to investigate Cummings.

A detective-led inquiry in Durham found Cummings probably breached health protection rules by travelling to Barnard Castle on 12 April, but it made no finding on his decision to leave London because the three-day investigation was confined to County Durham.

Unmesh Desai, the Labour assembly member who chairs city hall’s police and crime committee, said that new allegations “have come to light about Dominic Cummings’ movements during the lockdown which raise a number of unresolved issues. As Durham police is itself the subject of criticism and complaints, it is only logical that Cummings’ own police force, the Met, now investigates this matter, and answers legitimate questions from the public.”

One of the other witnesses who originally complained to Durham police about seeing Cummings on his first trip to the north-east lockdown, has also called on the Met to investigate.

The witness, who does not wish to be named, has written to Met commissioner Cressida Dick, saying there were a number of unanswered questions about why Cummings left his home when his wife was sick with suspected coronavirus. The witness said: “Durham police seem to have left all these questions open – if they were fully investigated it would help restore public confidence in officials at a time when compliance with the regulations is still critical.”

Last month, the Met refused to investigate Cummings following a request by Nazir Afzal, the former chief prosecutor for north-west England.

On Friday night, the force said: “As a matter of course the Metropolitan police service is not investigating Covid guidance-related issues retrospectively.”

Afzal said the latest claims about Cummings’ movements underlined the need for a thorough investigation. He said: “My legal team and I have been sighted on these allegations and have no reason to disbelieve the clear, coherent and corroborative accounts from these witnesses. Mr Cummings stated that he was not in Durham at any time on the 19th, he and these witnesses cannot both be right. The failure of the police to investigate remains very disappointing given the public interest and concern.”

Joy Allen, Labour’s candidate to become Durham’s police and crime commissioner (PCC) next year, has urged the force to check number plate data on Cummings’ movements on 19 April.

She said: “Obviously PCCs can’t get involved in operational matters but, if I was Clare and Dave Edwards’ elected representative I would wholeheartedly support their request to review ANPR [automatic number plate recognition] data for that weekend to settle the matter once and for all.”

The Tories’ planning overhaul is a ferocious attack on democracy 

“…even by the standards of the modern Conservative party, this is no ordinary regulatory bonfire. In one fell swoop, the entire system that has governed land use in England for more than 70 years has been set ablaze…”

“… concealed beneath the cuddly rhetoric about “affordable, green and beautiful homes”, lies a ferocious attack on democracy.”

[Owl can confirm the cuddly rhetoric and reasoned critique of the current system, especially in “Three Homes” Jenrick’s forward. ]

Laurie Macfarlane www.theguardian.com 

Just over a month ago Boris Johnson promised to deliver the most radical reforms to England’s planning system “since the second world war”. This week we found out what that means in practice, and it’s clear the prime minister wasn’t joking.

In a new white paper the government has set out sweeping plans to “cut red tape, overhaul the planning process and build better, greener homes faster”. But even by the standards of the modern Conservative party, this is no ordinary regulatory bonfire. In one fell swoop, the entire system that has governed land use in England for more than 70 years has been set ablaze.

Ever since the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 was enacted, landowners and developers have had to apply to their local authority for planning permission to build new property or convert existing buildings from one use to another. The act was an elegant attempt by Clement Attlee’s Labour government to balance public and private interests: land was kept in private ownership but the right to develop it was nationalised.

But under the reforms published this week, this will be replaced with a zoning system under which all land will be designated as one of three categories. In so-called growth areas, permission will be granted automatically without having to submit a planning application. In “renewal” areas, which are expected to cover urban and brownfield sites, permission will be automatically granted subject to some basic checks. Only in “protected areas”, such as the green belt and areas of outstanding natural beauty, will stricter development controls apply.

At first glance this may sound innocent, perhaps even sensible. But, concealed beneath the cuddly rhetoric about “affordable, green and beautiful homes”, lies a ferocious attack on democracy. Under the current system there are two opportunities for democratic participation in the planning system: first, at the formation of a local plan which sets out the strategic priorities for development in an area; and then at the planning application stage of individual developments, which tends to be many years later. Under the proposed reforms, the second stage of consultation will be scrapped. As a result, only those with psychic powers to foresee future developments will be able to object to them at the initial plan-making stage. Democratic oversight of individual developments will soon be a thing of the past.

This is, of course, intentional. More than anything else, the reforms serve to transfer power away from local elected representatives and towards private developers, who will be able to build whatever they like, unopposed. The significance of this should not be underestimated. From now on, our built environment will be shaped around the interests of shareholder value, unchecked by democratic accountability.

Some may argue that this is a price worth paying to break the logjam in housing supply. But, according to the Local Government Association, nine out of every 10 planning applications are approved by councils anyway. Some maintain that this figure is misleading, because only those who expect planning permission to be granted bother applying. But more than a million homes that have already been granted planning permission in the last decade have not yet been built. If the planning system really is the problem, why have these homes not been built?

The government’s reforms are premised on the assumption that the planning system is to blame for a shortage of housing, but curiously the white paper presents no evidence to support this claim. According to information obtained by Shelter under a freedom of information request, the government hasn’t even bothered to assess what impact its new proposals will have on housebuilding.

Luckily however, in 2018 the government commissioned an independent review to identify the drivers of slow construction rates in England. The so-called Letwin review found that the main bottleneck on housing supply isn’t the planning system, but the “market absorption rate” – the rate at which newly constructed homes can be sold on the local market without materially disturbing the existing market price.

In a system where development is left in the hands of profit-maximising firms, there is a strong incentive to build strategic land banks and drip-feed new homes on to the market at a slow rate. The reason for this is simple: releasing too many homes at once would reduce house prices in the area, which in turn would reduce profits.

By handing over even more power to private developers, the government’s reforms will make this problem even worse. Combined with the recent extension of permitted development rights (allowing change of use), the reforms could lead to a new generation of slum housing, as the Royal Institute of British Architects and others have warned. And by scrapping section 106 provisions, the future of social housebuilding has been cast into doubt.

All of this raises the question: why is Boris Johnson’s government really dismantling the planning system? As ever, it helps to follow the money.

As openDemocracy has revealed, the Conservative party has received £11m in donations from individuals and companies linked to the property sector since Johnson became prime minister. These donors are no doubt expecting a return on their investment. Robert Jenrick’s cosy relationship with Richard Desmond may may not be the last scandal to catch the limelight.

From the opening sentence to the final full stop, the government’s white paper emits a strong stench of corporate lobbying, and represents a slap in the face to evidence-based policymaking. At best the reforms represent an ideological crusade to undermine local authorities and hand over more power to private developers. At worst, they are part of a coordinated attempt to undermine English democracy. Either way, they must be resisted every step of the way.

• Laurie Macfarlane is economics editor at openDemocracy and a fellow at the UCL Institute of Innovation and Public Purpose. He is co-author of Rethinking the Economics of Land and Housing

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