In this by-election, two issues seem to have predominated, both to do with development unwanted by locals: HS2, which is already being dug through the area, and the Government’s planning reforms. Ironically, the Liberal Democrats actually favour HS2 at the national level, and while successful Lib Dem candidate Sarah Green opposes it, so does unsuccessful Tory Peter Fleet. This was always going to be a hard problem for the Tories as the digging got closer.
The planning and housing issue is both more difficult to crack and more deeply rooted. Lib Dem campaigners handed out thousands of leaflets with quotations implying that the Government’s bill would concrete over the countryside. In fact, since Chesham and Amersham are both inside London’s Green Belt and protected by a local Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the new system will protect them just as much as the old one, however it turns out. But alongside messages from the Campaign to Protect Rural England the leaflets quoted both Theresa May and Iain Duncan Smith strongly opposing the plans – Tory campaigners say that this ‘cut through’. Isle of Wight MP Bob Seely, who has consistently opposed the reforms, said this was ‘the start of a significant push-back from communities on planning’.
As those who have followed the passage of the Planning White Paper towards Bill form will know, Theresa May, Bob Seely, and Iain Duncan Smith are far from the only Tories who have issues with the Government’s plans. There were a rumoured eighty MPs ready to oppose the Government’s plans for a new method for assessing housing need that doubled targets and shifted them towards the South East, where houses are more expensive. Now MPs are gearing up to battle the Government on its plan to bring democracy forward to the plan stage, which would effectively remove the ability to object to developments once they are planned.
A lot of the objections levied against the Government’s plans have been unfair. It is not true that Green Belt protections will be weakened, nor that Areas of Outstanding National Beauty will be carpeted. And it is true that the country needs more homes. In fact, the Tory party, and the marginal Tory voter, have an interest in building more homes, even if their current core voters do not. If people cannot afford to settle down, buy a house, they cannot get married, have children, and end up as Tories.
This is why the Government will need to stress the elements of its programme that can draw support from its MPs. One of these is beauty. This Government is the first to put ‘provably popular design’ at the centre of its programme. This is the culmination of Policy Exchange’s ‘Building Beautiful’ programme, which showed that the public have fairly predictable preferences when it comes to architecture. They tend to like broadly traditional styles – and they regularly cite the ugliness of new developments as a reason to oppose them. If they could really trust that new developments would be beautiful additions to their towns, not blights, they would be less motivated to oppose them.
Indeed, Theresa May, who has emerged as one of the chief rebels against the Government, said in a speech at Policy Exchange’s summer party: ‘I’ve long said that design quality is, I think, actually one of the keys to new housing’ – referencing the ‘Building Beautiful’ movement.
The second is the Government’s suggestion in the Planning White Paper that they would devolve some planning decisions to locals, so that housing is something done by them, when it benefits them, and not something they see as being done to them. Policy Exchange developed this idea in a detailed policy paper, Strong Suburbs, that won support from several suburban Tory MPs, senior members of CPRE, the umbrella civic society London Forum representing 100,000 members of neighbourhood groups and associations, and many more. Developing this part of their platform could allow more homes to be built without losing them seats they have held for decades, or losing the support of those MPs.
By-elections are always exceptions to the usual rules, and one must always resist the temptation to draw big conclusions from small sample sizes. But it does seem as though perceptions around planning policy cost the Conservative Party Chesham and Amersham. The evidence around localism and building beautiful shows how they can win it back.