Boris Johnson to relax rules on building new homes

Boris building site

Boris Johnson will use home ownership to cement Tory dominance of the Midlands and north for a generation, pressing ahead with the biggest shake-up of the planning system for more than 70 years.

Cabinet ministers believe that the key to many of the Conservative Party’s extraordinary gains in last week’s local elections was the number of people who owned their homes.

A planning bill set to be included in tomorrow’s Queen’s Speech is aimed at expanding rates of home ownership across small cities and towns in areas where, only recently, Conservative support was all but non-existent.

The reforms, seen as crucial to Johnson’s “levelling-up” agenda, will simplify the planning process, making it more difficult for existing homeowners to block new housing schemes.

The country will be split up into zones marked for growth or protection. Ministers are undecided on adding a third category for regeneration, The Times understands. Homes, hospitals, schools, shops and offices will get automatic planning approval in growth areas. Development will be restricted in protected areas, but not ruled out.

The decision to plough ahead shows that Johnson has been emboldened to pursue planning changes to benefit the so-called red wall of former Labour strongholds — even after a row over a housing algorithm last year that would have brought sharp increases in housebuilding in rural Tory heartlands.

In a further sign of the government’s determination to flaunt its commitment to red wall areas, a scheme to give discounts of at least 30 per cent to first-time buyers in their local area will be tested this year in Bolsover, Derbyshire, once a Labour bastion that was represented in the Commons for half a century by Dennis Skinner.

Key workers and veterans of the armed forces will take priority in what the government is calling the first homes scheme.

The developments come as ministers prepare to invest billions of pounds in Scottish projects to demonstrate the strengths of the United Kingdom and forge a positive case for the Union.

Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister, said yesterday that it would be “absurd and outrageous” for the government to try to block a second independence referendum after her Scottish National Party won a fourth successive term in office in Scotland.

Johnson wants to shift the focus away from constitutional issues and instead take a “show, not tell” approach, sources said, even if that means encroaching on devolved areas. The UK government has identified the backlog of cancer care as a pinch point for Scotland’s NHS after Covid, and Whitehall could offer additional support to help to solve the problem.

Recent studies showing a strong correlation between areas with high levels of home ownership and Tory electoral success have been studied by the party. “In the Midlands and north the effect of home ownership is clear,” a senior Conservative source said. “We need even more emphasis now on towns, high streets and a sense of place.”

In the seats won by the Conservatives at the 2019 election, 54 per cent of people owned their own homes. In Labour constituencies, that figure is 43 per cent, according to analysis by the Resolution Foundation think tank. Hartlepool is no exception: 60 per cent of people owned their homes as of 2011.

The present planning process gives residents two chances to object to developments — once when the local plan is drawn up and again when an individual application is put in. The reforms will scrap this second tier of democratic accountability because ministers believe that more affluent homeowners use the system to object to schemes they do not like.

Architectural codes will be enshrined in law, forcing developers to build in appropriate styles. “Why should a beautiful home be the preserve of the city-living wealthy?” a government source asked.

Ministers could also introduce a new “use it or lose it” tax on developers who fail to build houses for which they have planning permission.

Tory rebels succeeded last year in forcing the government to scrap an the algorithm that would have increased housebuilding in places such as Kent, Sussex and Surrey. The plan was never set to be part of legislation but the uproar in traditional Conservative seats might prefigure a row over the planning bill when it is put before the Commons.

Theresa Villiers, a former cabinet minister, said: “We must not dilute local input in the planning process. Local democratic control should remain a fundamental part of our system.” She said that “stripping away” councils’ rights to set local policies “could do grave harm to our environment”.