Boris Johnson was under increased pressure to rethink his planning reforms as they were partly blamed for the Conservatives’ shock defeat in the Chesham and Amersham by-election.
Cabinet ministers were said to be among those warning the Prime Minister after the Liberal Democrats won the Buckinghamshire seat that has been a Tory stronghold since its creation in 1974.
The HS2 rail line being built through the constituency was a major issue in the campaign, as was the proposed planning reforms that have sparked fears about building in the countryside around the seat in the Chilterns.
Tory rebels were, in the wake of Thursday’s defeat, eyeing a chance to water down the planning proposals, with the legislation due to be introduced to the Commons.
Conservative Party co-chair Amanda Milling said the “concerns about planning and HS2 were loud and clear”.
“I am in no doubt that this result is a warning shot,” she wrote in the Telegraph, adding “the people have spoken and we have heard them”.
With a target of building 300,000 new homes a year in England, ministers want to overhaul the planning system, arguing reforms would boost the building of high-quality, sustainable homes, by streamlining the process and cutting red tape.
Public’s right to be heard
Critics warn the plans will undermine local democracy by removing the public’s right to be heard in person and would strip elected planning committees of development decisions.
Tory former Cabinet minister Damian Green warned the Tories could become “disconnected” from voters if the party fails to listen following the by-election defeat by improving the “thin” level of oversight in the plans.
“People want some form of local control … people don’t want to feel that they’re going to have developments dumped on green fields near them when they and their local representatives have had no say over it,” the MP for Ashford, in Kent, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“It’s a fairly thin form (of oversight) frankly and people don’t think it gives them enough protection.”
Former environment secretary Theresa Villiers urged ministers “to use this as an opportunity to rethink their approach to planning reform”.
“This by-election result should pave the way for a reduction in housing targets for the London suburbs and the South East,” the Tory MP for Chipping Barnet wrote in the Telegraph.
“We need a fairer distribution of new homes across the country, rather than seeking to cram so many thousands more into the crowded South. There needs to be a stronger focus on brownfield sites in urban inner city areas.”
Mr Johnson conceded “it was certainly a disappointing result” when asked if he was neglecting voters in the South in favour of those in the North, but insisted: “We believe in uniting and levelling up within regions and across the country.”
Sir Ed Davey said his party’s victory would “send a shockwave through British politics” while claiming the result demonstrated the “Blue Wall” of Tory southern seats could be vulnerable.
Planning proposals include creating zones for growth, renewal or protection, with development in growth areas preapproved for developments as long as they meet local design standards.
This forms a central part of critics’ concerns. They argue the zoning system could radically reduce protections for nature and green spaces while failing to tackle the climate crisis.
The by-election was triggered by the death of former Cabinet minister Dame Cheryl Gillan, who took the seat with a majority of 16,233 in the 2019 general election – some 55% of the vote.
However, Lib Dem Sarah Green took 56.7% of the vote to secure a majority of 8,028 over the second-placed Tories.
Labour trailed the Greens in fourth place, winning just 622 votes and losing the party’s deposit in the process.
Polling expert Sir John Curtice told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that he made it the “worst Labour performance in any by-election” after the party took just 1.6% of the vote.
One of Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer’s closest aides told staff he was standing down in the wake of the dire result.
Ben Nunn said he remained convinced that Sir Keir “will be a great prime minister” as he announced he was quitting as director of communications.