First it was lockdown, then foreign aid. Now disgruntled Tory rebels are taking aim at Boris Johnson’s planning reforms.

The proposals, first announced in August 2020, were an instant miss in Tory heartlands. Critics said they would damage local democracy and destroy swathes of countryside by granting property developers a freer hand to build over green fields.

After a year of simmering resentment, the furore was reignited last week by the Conservatives’ humiliating loss of the Chesham and Amersham seat to the Lib Dems on a 25 per cent swing. Many Tory backbenchers blame planning reform for the results, noting local concerns that the new laws could reduce green belt protection in the Chilterns.

This week, several of the rebels have made public appeals to the PM to scrap the “electorally toxic” reforms. But housing secretary Robert Jenrick has doubled down on the plans, saying the government has “a duty” to ensure home ownership is a realistic possibility for young people and families.

What are the planning reforms?

The Bill, due in the autumn, would dramatically loosen planning laws and is designed to increase the number of homes being planned by more than a third.

The new laws would see the country divided up into planning zones where new homes, hospitals, schools, shops and offices in “growth areas” – selected based on need with the use of an algorithm – would automatically receive planning permission.

In “renewal” zones, largely urban and brownfield sites, proposals would be given “permission in principle”, subject to basic checks. The government claims the new plans would protect the green belt and areas of outstanding natural beauty.

Under the new plans, residents would also lose the ability to object to specific proposals, retaining only the right to question overall development plans.

The government says the reforms will make the planning system “more accessible” to residents and claims they are necessary to fix the housing crisis and help young people get on the property ladder. 

The government is also promising “ambitious” improvements in energy efficiency standards, with new homes required to produce 75 per cent to 80 per cent lower CO2 emissions compared with current levels from 2025.

How are they different from previous reforms?

The new Bill is the first significant update to the planning system since the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, which laid down procedures to control urban sprawl into the countryside.

Under the current rules, it takes an average of five years for a standard housing development to go through the planning system. The Planning Bill aims to significantly reduce this time. 

The government said last summer it wanted to cut the planning system red tape, due to the current speed of housing development in England. It has pledged to build 300,000 new homes per year, but official figures show that only 192,725 homes were built in 2020.

What are the objections to the new planning reforms?

The main complaint against the reforms is that they will erode local democracy – handing control over to wealthy developers and creating opposition to new developments.

Under the new plans, planning applications based on pre-approved “design codes” would get an automatic green light – eliminating a whole stage of local oversight within designated zones.

Writing in The Telegraph, Bob Seely, the Conservative MP for the Isle of Wight, argued this would strip away “a critical layer of local democracy from the planning process”. Rather than weaken the ability of residents to object to developments, he said communities with neighbourhood plans appeared to accept “higher housing allocations, probably because they could shape the process”.

There are also concerns about a so-called “rural sprawl”, with countryside campaigners warning the changes would lead to the “suburbanisation” of the countryside without delivering much-needed affordable housing.

Tom Fyans, campaigns and policy director of CPRE, the countryside charity, warned: “The Planning Bill looks set to prioritise developers’ needs over local communities, provide no new environmental safeguards and could slow the delivery of genuinely affordable homes in many areas.”

Robert Buckland, the justice secretary, accused opponents, who include Theresa May, of having “mischaracterised” the plans. He said: “At no time has this proposal been about suddenly indiscriminately bricking over the countryside.”

The Planning Bill is expected to be brought before Parliament in the autumn, following the summer recess, when the government will hope to have enough support to enter the Bill into law.