More on: Tory councillors in revolt over plans to accelerate housebuilding

A growing rebellion among Conservative councillors is threatening government plans to accelerate housebuilding in England with six out of 10 believing reforms will make planning less democratic.

Robert Booth

A survey across Tory heartlands has revealed party representatives are baulking at ministers’ plans to sharply increase housing targets in electoral strongholds like Hampshire and Surrey and are rejecting attempts to cut planning committees out of routine decision-making.

Conservative leaders in councils are becoming increasingly vocal in their opposition to the plans which they fear could result in countryside being concreted over for housing and core voters deserting them in disgust.

Martin Tett, the Conservative leader of Buckinghamshire council told the Guardian demands for an extra 1,000 homes to be built a year in his country were “undesirable and undeliverable” while John Halsall, leader of Wokingham council said the proposals were “a huge political danger”. An internal presentation from Winchester council seen by the Guardian warns the proposals are “clearly designed to reduce [the] number and type of decisions taken locally”.

The concern is reflected in a poll this month by Savanta Comres of Conservative councillors, weighted towards those who sit on planning committees, which found 61% believe proposed reforms announced in August would make planning less democratic.

It was carried out on behalf of BECG, a planning communications firm, and showed that 70% of Tory councillors want to increase the size of the greenbelt, which appears to run contrary to government proposals that otherwise unprotected farm and open land could be zoned for construction.

Andrew Howard, the firm’s managing director, said: “If the government is going to deliver on its commitment to fundamentally reform the planning system, it is going to have to put in some serious spade work, to win round those Conservative councillors who provide the bedrock of their member of parliament’s constituency association and who clearly value their role in controlling development.”

The survey also found that two thirds of all councillors, including Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens and independents, believe the majority of consultation with the public should happen on a proposal-by-proposal basis rather than when broad local plans are devised, as the planning white paper published last month proposes.

The planning reforms were unveiled in August by the housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, and immediately drew sharp criticism. Under the proposals, planning applications based on pre-approved “design codes” would get an automatic green light – eliminating a whole stage of local oversight within designated zones. Land across England would be divided into three categories – for growth, renewal or protection – under what Jenrick, described as “once in a generation” changes to sweep away an outdated planning system and boost building.

But the proposals were immediately condemned by The Town and Country Planning Association as disruptive and rushed, and described as creating the “the next generation of slum housing” by the president of RIBA, Alan Jones.

The government’s parallel proposal to use an algorithm to set new housing targets for local areas in order to meet a national annual housebuilding target of 333,000 new homes has caused widespread concern. Analysis by Lichfields, a planning consultancy, of the proposed method has shown that sharp increases are expected in many Tory heartlands. In Chichester, West Sussex the annual target would rise from 425 to 1,120, in Reigate, Surrey it would rise from 460 to 1,091 while in Tonbridge in Kent it would rise from 425 to 1,440.

“If they stick with the algorithm they are using at the moment there will be more building on greenfield and less on brownfield in northern cities and that’s a real concern,” said Cllr David Renard, Conservative leader of Swindon council and planning spokesman for the Local Government Association planning spokesman. “What local government would like to see is numbers based on local needs rather than some algorithm imposing numbers from above. We are hopeful the government will reshape their proposals. The planning system can be improved and we don’t think this is the right way to do it.”

The algorithm has proposed cuts to housing targets in many northern areas such as Lancaster, Preston and Blackburn with Darwen.

Halsall’s area in Wokingham, Berkshire, has been told its current target of 600 new homes per year will rise to 1,635 which he said was “very unpopular”.

“We are a rural and semi-rural area and our population has doubled in the last 20 years so everyone is suffering from congestion, development noise, medical services being rationed which [voters] attribute to the volume of development,” he said. “It’s nuts in planning terms and it’s nuts in political terms.”

A spokesperson for the ministry of housing, communities and local government described the opposition as “misguided”, saying community involvement and control is at the centre of its overhaul of an “outdated planning system”.

“While local housing need proposals provide a guide for councils they will still need to consider local circumstances to decide how many homes should be delivered in their areas,” they said. “We’re consulting on the proposals and will reflect on the feedback we receive so we can deliver the homes we need, where we need them.”

On Wednesday parliament is set to vote on a Labour motion against a planning rule change to allow owners of blocks of flats to extend without seeking full planning permission.