Liz Truss’s first Prime Ministers’ Questions passed without Oliver Dowden’s presence but our MP’s definitely been pitch-rolling* for the big green belt fight
The Tory Party’s own Anti-Growth Coalition smells blood. Parliament is back after a long conference season break, extended by the Queen’s funeral. Labour is now an average of 30 points ahead of the Tories in national opinion polls. If there was a general election tomorrow Labour’s parliamentary majority would be over 300. Dowden would hang on to his seat but his majority in Hertsmere would be smaller even than the historic low of the 1997 Blair landslide. The weakness of the government brought about by the Chancellor’s catastrophic mini-budget hasn’t just empowered the opposition, though, it’s boosted critics inside the governing party too.
Tory backbenchers may mobilise against cuts in benefits that they can see will be disastrous, or they might decide that the NI increase that was going to fund social care must be reinstated. Let’s face it, though, what’s really got them going is the prospect of winning concessions on proposed planning reforms from the embattled front bench. The 2019 manifesto pledge to build 300,000 new homes per year – so far undelivered of course – looks like it’s about to be scrapped so the anti-growth Tories might record that as victory number one in the coming war.
It won’t be the first time Tories from the shires and the home counties have derailed planning reforms. Economic growth will always be secondary to protection of the green belt in these constituencies. Almost everyone – and especially the economically liberal end of the think tank spectrum – recognises that Britain’s bizarre and sclerotic planning regime is holding back vital infrastructure investment and improvements to the housing stock. For Tory MPs, though, this remains the ultimate third rail issue.
It seems that Tory backbenchers are also teaming up with Labour MPs in constituencies threatened with the prospect of fracking. If your response to the government’s announcement that fracking would restart was “it’ll never happen” give yourself a pat on the back.
Oliver Dowden is out of ministerial office and, for the time being, out of favour. He continues to use his time out in the cold to restore his bond with Hertsmere constituents in time for the general election. He’s defending the green belt on Twitter and insisting on local consent to planning decisions. He’s firing off written questions to ministers in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (the planning ministry). So far they’ve all been about planning and the green belt. We shared the first three in an earlier post. His most recent questions are:
To ask the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, whether he will take steps to protect the Green Belt in the National Planning Policy Framework.Question from Oliver Dowden, 10 October 2022
To ask the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, what the Government’s policy is on the calculation of new housing targets in local authorities which are predominately made up of Green Belt land.Question from Oliver Dowden, 10 October 2022
To ask the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, what steps the Government is taking to address local housing projections which are based on out-of-date numbers.Question from Oliver Dowden, 10 October 2022
The minister assigned these questions, Parliamentary Under Secretary Lee Rowley, responds with a holding position:
Existing Government policy is to help make home ownership affordable for more people and to help more people rent their own home. To do that, we will need to deliver more homes. The standard method for assessing local housing need is used by councils to inform the preparation of their local plans and, as part of the local plan process, Councils are responsible for determining the best approach to development in their areas, including taking into consideration important matters such as Green Belt.
The previous Government undertook a review of the standard method formula in 2020 and, after carefully considering consultation responses, they retained the existing formula providing stability and certainty for planning and for local communities. As with all policies, we are monitoring the standard method, particularly as the impact of changes to the way we live and work and levelling up become clear.Written answer from Lee Rowley, 10 October 2022
National planning frameworks, local plans, rules about affordable housing, a tapestry of historic green belt protections – this is a complicated business and dry as dust (we practically nodded off typing this) but there can’t be a better-informed group than these home counties MPs. They’re planning ninjas, with hundreds of years of opposing major projects and reform to the rules between them. We can only sympathise with Mr Rowley, whose inbox, we feel certain, is going to be pinging constantly as these questions pour in. A quick search of They Work For You suggests that many Tory MPs have kicked off the new session with detailed questions about planning. They’re going to be a tough crowd and the action returns to the floor of the house soon. Meanwhile the markets remain unimpressed, mortgage rates are now rising faster than during the financial crisis and the Winter looms.
* If you’ve been listening to the increasingly desperate defences of the Truss-Kwarteng mini-catastrophe from various leadership proxies you’ll have heard the phrase ‘rolling the pitch’ or ‘pitch-rolling’, as in “…the suspension of politics in the mourning period left no time to ‘roll the pitch’ and warn investors of his plan.” We think this awkward (but obviously very Tory) phrase was first applied to politics by David Cameron. Here’s an example from 2014.