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Redrawn boundaries create a maze for the new housing minister

Updated: May 22, 2023

Local Dialogue graphic over a photo of new homes in Bedford with a cartoon blue rosette.
New homes in Bedford (Photo: James Feaver, 2021)

Rishi Sunak has just appointed Rachel Maclean as the sixth housing minister of the last twelve months. Maclean now faces an almost impossible challenge with boss Michael Gove – to reform the English planning system. The challenge has become even greater recently, with backbenchers flexing their muscles to defeat meaningful and positive reforms and constituency boundaries set to slice some Conservative majorities, or cut some MPs from Parliament altogether.

In the Chesham and Amersham by-election, the Liberal Democrats ran a campaign which openly criticised development in the Chilterns. On election night, Conservative candidate Peter Fleet was delivered a clear defeat by the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Green. One of the safest Conservative seats in the country, with a majority of 16,223 votes, had just been lost to a third party with a majority of over 8,000.

This defeat led to leading Conservatives laying the blame squarely with planning reform and HS2. Within days the party co-chair had written in The Telegraph that voters’ concerns had been heard “loud and clear” and that the by-election was a “warning shot” for the Conservatives in the traditionally Tory South of England.

The Chesham and Amersham by-election is not old news – it still gives us insight into how Conservative politicians act when their seats are perceived as more vulnerable due to planning reform or development concerns. This offers us a peek into what may await a Conservative government after the expected boundary review later this year. In the wake of the by-election, we saw Conservative politicians in open revolt over planning not because they necessarily disagreed so strongly with then-policy, but rather because they thought it threatened seats with even the very largest majorities.

The boundary review process has changed. Gone are the days of to-ing and fro-ing over boundaries due to the expected impact on the current Parliament. Instead, we can now expect the Boundary Commission’s proposals to be implemented without much contention providing there is not an election before July 2023. Parliament must be dissolved 25 working days before polling day, which means we will have certainty on these new boundaries towards late May or early June.

Looking ahead to the next election

If the new boundaries are adopted – which is likely – we will see the Conservatives left with far more marginal seats than they currently hold, and some of their MPs without a seat altogether at the next election. At the time of writing, Labour maintains a lead between 16% and 27%. The scene is clearly set for an extremely fraught path for any planning reform under a Conservative government.

Some big names in the party are expected to lose their seat – Ben Wallace, the current Secretary of State for Defence, will have his constituency split three ways – others such as Dominic Raab, the embattled Secretary of State for Justice who represents Esher and Walton, face a constituency that is due to be more marginal than in 2019.

It is likely that some of these big names could find alternative seats either because their current ones no longer exist or become unrealistic to hold onto, just last week we saw Mark Jenkinson switch out his highly marginal seat of Workington for Penrith and Solway where the Conservatives may expect a stronger result at the next election.

While there is plenty of time for an upset before an expected election in 2024, and Conservative polling may yet improve, it is hard to see how a Conservative government can have a smoother time on planning reform under these new boundaries. Even with an 80-seat majority, once Tory backbenchers are concerned about development in their constituency the government will be hard pressed to find a path forward which both satiates housing demand and satisfies backbench MPs.

The future of the Conservative party and housing

These boundary changes come amidst a growing debate within the Conservative party over housebuilding. It may make sense strategically for the Conservatives to resist change in their constituencies in the shorter term, hedging their bets on existing homeowners who typically tend to oppose development, this calculation could guide some of the MPs who are more resistant to large scale housebuilding. However, some Conservative commentators have warned that the party faces a bleak future in the medium to long term with this path.

Home ownership, a key demographic indicator of a Conservative voter, is dwindling further among millennials and generation Z, along with their likelihood to vote Conservative. Commentators such as Robert Colvile argue that the shortage of homes will lead to lower home ownership, and in turn an increasingly unfriendly electoral environment for Conservative candidates.

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