Bob Blackman is MP for Harrow East.
I have worked in local politics for over 30 years: 24 as a councillor leading Brent council, or the Conservative grouping there, and 11 as MP. My seat, Harrow East, is about nine miles away from Chesham and Amersham, with two Conservative constituencies in between – one of them the Prime Minister’s own constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip. While Harrow is more suburban than Buckinghamshire, we treasure the fields and green open spaces in the area no less and are no more willing to see them concreted over.
The notion that everyone is Conservative about what they know best is a pretty good summary of the results in the Chesham and Amersham by-election. Given the impression that planning changes would lose them control of development in their green and pleasant land, voters reacted with a protest vote, in good by-election tradition.
This does not mean, however, that locals are opposed to any and every bit of development that happens. Most of my constituents understand that the country needs more homes, and that some development must happen in their area. What they object to is development foisted on them, and which they feel they have no control over. They are worried when even members of our own party say that local democracy will be overruled to force through new development.
The Housing, Communities, and Local Government committee, on which I have sat since 2010, has a Tory majority and yet our report on the upcoming Planning Bill, or at least on those bits of it that have been released to the public or heavily signposted, could be described as “wary”. Many of us do not want to force sprawling new developments on places that cannot cope with them, leaving both new and existing residents badly off in terms of congestion, school places, and access to natural amenity.
The party may find itself at an impasse. We know that the country needs more homes – so people can live closer to the best jobs and afford to buy a home and raise a family. We know that the Conservative Party needs more homes – as homeowners with families always end up being the ones who vote for us. However, if more homes mean building over the landscapes that our voters hold dear, it may risk our core voters in places like Chesham and Amersham turning on us.
I think there’s another way. Earlier this year I contributed to a Policy Exchange paper called Strong Suburbs which outlines an extension to neighbourhood planning called “street plans”. These would allow individual streets, when a large majority of homeowners agree, to give themselves permission to increase the size of their houses. They could add bedrooms for children, granny, or a lodger, or even turn a large semi-detached house into two larger terraced homes. In many areas the value uplift, after building costs, could be several hundred thousand pounds for every homeowner on the street.
There are encouraging signs that this alternative to towers on the skyline, or building over fields, can carry a wide coalition of supporters. Six Tory MPs, including me and my colleague David Simmonds, whose constituency lies directly between mine and Amersham, have endorsed the idea. So has Tony Burton, the key inventor of neighbourhood planning, and chairman of the London branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE). The idea also boasts the support of the London Forum of Amenity and Civic Societies, with more than 100,000 underlying members. Indeed, CPRE’s Hampshire branch recommended the report as part of its submission for the Winchester local plan.
These point the way to a compromise solution on housing, where we make it easier to build, but give local communities the final say, directly, about what goes where. Streets that want to retain their existing character can vote to do so. Those that opt to build more can do that, reaping the benefits, just as many homes opt for more limited loft extensions under the current system. This means that we will be developing places that are already built on and protecting green fields and other natural spaces. Locals always have the final say and cannot have their wishes overridden by the local council or Westminster.
If the idea works, it will be because it gives full control to the local people who are affected most by development. Instead of bearing only the burden of housing, they share in the benefits it delivers, and control the shape and form it takes. If we give power back to communities in this way, we can create a new generation of homeowners, without letting down our most loyal voters.