In the corner of Somerset where I have lived for nearly 15 years, life in late-Tory England grinds on. Our MP is David Warburton, the formerly Conservative backbencher who was recently found to have broken the parliamentary code of conduct amid allegations of sexual harassment and drug use, which he denies. He has not been seen for eight months. Our new unitary county council faces a financial black hole of £38m before it has even come into being, so cuts are being readied. The town’s GP service is completely overstretched, bus services are a constant worry, trains to Bristol and Bath run at inexplicable times of the day, and the roads are regularly jammed with traffic. Use of the local food bank is at an all-time high. Meanwhile, a lot of local angst is now focused on an ever-increasing number of new housing developments: a huge local story that reflects one of the ever-growing number of internal Tory conflicts eating away at Rishi Sunak’s government.
The Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto promised that the government would trigger the building of 300,000 new homes a year, which inevitably entailed a sizeable loosening of the planning system. But proposals for drastically changing the rules and introducing new liberalised “development zones” were dropped after revolts led by Tory MPs, largely from the south of England.
Now, scenting even more weakness at the top, Conservative rebels led by the former minister Theresa Villiers want to amend the new levelling up and regeneration bill to – among other changes – make Whitehall housing targets advisory rather than mandatory, get rid of the planning system’s inbuilt presumption in favour of development, and allow councils to ban building on the green belt. The result has been an almighty row, and panic at the top.
Conservatives being Conservatives, none of the controversy gets near the most urgent housing issue of all: the dire lack of homes for social rent, and the pitiful numbers built every year. But that hardly diminishes the passions of the combatants. Today the minister-turned-senior backbencher Sajid Javid warned in the Sunday Times that Villiers and her comrades wanted to “tear down the existing planning system”, and lead their party into “a colossal failure of political leadership”.
A Tory-aligned columnist in the same newspaper recently described the rebels’ moves as a “wicked” quest to “enshrine nimbyism as the governing principle of British society”. Given that their ranks include such panto villains as Chris Grayling, Iain Duncan Smith and John Redwood, most bystanders on the political left would presumably be inclined to agree.
But this issue is complex and confounding, and two somewhat contradictory things could both be true. Yes, the anti-development Tories’ motives might be cynical and self-serving. But at the same time, some of the widespread unease that they are seizing on is real and understandable. If you live and work in a city, imagining the opponents of new development to be a bigoted shower and endlessly shouting “nimby” at them is easy. But take a closer look at what is actually happening across the country, and you might come to a more nuanced opinion.
For a start, objecting to concreting over huge chunks of countryside and obliterating natural habitats is surely not an inherently evil cause. The fact that most new housing tends to lock in dependency on the car only compounds many people’s unease about what new developments mean for their environment.
The complex and opaque machinations of landowners and private developers only increase a sense of them being distant interests with very little sense of what people in places hold dear. Because profit is usually the deciding consideration, far too many new-build projects are cheaply constructed, lack community amenities and are out of step with an ageing population and increasing numbers of people who live alone. And one massive tension now sits at the heart of local arguments about housing: the plain fact that, after 12 years of cuts, new development threatens to deepen the problems of places whose services and infrastructure are now in a state of decay.
Damian Green, the former minister and MP for Ashford in Kent, is one of the Tory rebels. “Much of the opposition to particular developments,” he recently wrote, “is based on the proposition that there are not enough school places, or medical services, or even water, to cope with a rising population in a locality.” This is undoubtedly true. And in that sense, whether they realise it or not, Green and his allies are really decrying their own party’s time in power, and failures that made any sensible conversation about new housing all but impossible, for one obvious reason: if a country doesn’t maintain the stuff that keeps it running, then any viable future becomes impossible.
Back, then, to where I live. Frome – population 28,000 – has a dysfunctional housing market characterised by often impossible prices and rising rents. Most of the new developments now scattered over the local area have done very little to ease these problems (the price of new-build four-bed houses regularly scrapes £500,000), and have worsened the tension between an expanding town ever more dominated by cars and an increasingly threadbare social fabric.
Last Thursday I went to a packed-out meeting organised by our town council to discuss plans for a huge “garden community” of 1,700 homes – housing about 7,000 people – to be built on fields beyond the edge of town that many people see as the area’s green lung. On the face of it, these plans are better than the norm, promising a new primary school, a “community hub”, properties for social rent, playing fields and more.
But, as people repeatedly pointed out in their speeches and questions, these visions are the work of a so-called promoter – a company that works with landowners to get initial planning permission for their land, and thereby hugely increase its value, in return for a share of the profits once it’s sold to the highest-bidding developer. In other words, the people we heard laying out their seemingly benign plans are not the people who will actually do the building, and square lofty promises with real-world economics (in a town eight miles away, “viability” has meant the probable affordable share of a big housing project going from 30% to around 10%).
As well as fears of yet more traffic and air pollution, one objection came up time and again: how “a whole new town” would cause the wider public realm to buckle under the strain. To quote one eloquent statement of opposition, “Services and infrastructure are already overstretched. Who will fund what is needed? Not the promoter or landowners, and not the local authority, given the present economic outlook.” Here, once again, is a very familiar picture of Britain as a Babel-like mess, in which far too little is ever integrated or joined up. Councils are so starved of money that they can’t function. The fact that housing is inseparable from transport, health, care and all the rest is repeatedly forgotten. And amid the chaos, Conservative politicians turn on each other, as their endless failures become clearer and clearer.
John Harris is a Guardian columnist