Theresa May lambasts ‘ill-conceived’ planning reforms

Theresa May has sharply criticised the government’s planning reforms, describing them as “mechanistic” and “ill conceived” as No 10 struggled to contain a backbench rebellion.

George Grylls /

In August Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, published details of a formula that will be used to calculate where 300,000 homes a year will be built.

It permits large increases in development in London and rural areas, while cities in the north including Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle will be asked to build fewer homes.

Mrs May told MPs that the reforms would send more investment into “London and the south”.

She said: “What this new algorithm does as regards to levelling up, is it flies in the face of the government’s flagship policy.

“This is a mechanistic approach and it is ill conceived. We need to reform the planning system. We need to make sure that planning system sees the right number of homes being built in the right places. But we won’t do that by removing local democracy, cutting the number of affordable homes that will be built and building over rural areas.”

In Mrs May’s Berkshire constituency of Maidenhead, according to the system, an additional 221 homes will be constructed each year over and above current requirements.

Meanwhile, a seat such as Manchester Central will have to build 260 fewer houses, Times analysis has found.

Referring to the government’s change of mind on A-level results, the former prime minister said: “I would have thought the government might have abandoned algorithms by now.”

Anger has been building on the Conservative back benches for some time over the reforms. Fifty-five Tory MPs sought to speak in the debate with nearly 80 in a WhatsApp group opposed to the targets. The government is hoping to avoid a binding vote on the algorithm, but the rebels are expected to amend the wider planning reforms if the formula is not changed.

At a meeting of the backbenchers’ 1922 committee last night, Mr Jenrick tried to calm opposition. But in the Commons, former cabinet ministers including Jeremy Hunt, Chris Grayling, Damian Green and Damian Hinds all spoke out against the algorithm, with Mr Hunt warning the government that it was showing “contempt for local democracy”.

A source close to Mr Jenrick said the government would not be “deterred” from its target of 300,000 homes a year, adding that the targets would be distributed in a “fair and sensitive way”.

Analysis by The Times has shown that Conservative constituencies will bear the brunt of the development. Excluding London — where housebuilding will increase dramatically — Tory seats will have to accommodate an additional 54,000 homes each year, while Labour constituencies beyond the capital will be asked to build 3,000 less.

Bob Seely, MP for the Isle of Wight who called the debate, said that the algorithm would leave Tory shire voters “furious” and Red Wall voters “betrayed”.

Christopher Pincher, the housing minister, responded that the planning system was “opaque, slow and almost uniquely discouraging for all but its most expert navigators”, adding that the government was “actively engaged” with backbenchers and “listening to feedback” about the effects of the algorithm.