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Chesham and Amersham

Why the Tories lost

Boris Johnson is in a “wall war”, says Isabel Hardman in The Observer. “Blue wall” Conservatives in the southern heartlands are in revolt: they feel neglected because of the PM’s focus on the new “red wall” MPs in the north, and they’re worried that Johnson is taking the south for granted. First in their sights are controversial planning reforms that would make it easier to build houses. The Lib Dems exploited opposition to the proposals to earn a surprise by-election victory in leafy Chesham and Amersham last week. By dismissing his backbenchers as a “bunch of Nimbys”, Johnson has provoked dissent, perhaps enough to sink the reforms outright. That big majority he won in 2019 now has “a lot of Swiss cheese-like holes in it”.

The Lib Dems pulled off a “stunning” result, but it doesn’t make them any less pointless, says Daniel Finkelstein in The Times. The party is a whopping obstacle to the creation of a “coherent alternative” to the Tories. It doesn’t stand for anybody or anything: it opposed HS2 in the election last week, but supports the project on a national level. Brexit divides make doing another deal with the Tories “unthinkable”, so the party should dissolve itself and throw in its lot with Labour. As things stand, it’s “splitting the progressive vote and dissipating progressive energy”.

But it’s no surprise Tory diehards voted yellow, says Douglas Murray in The Sunday Telegraph: this Conservative government is hardly worthy of the name. It waffles on about saving the world, but wants to “concrete over some of the most beautiful parts of it”. The towns and villages of southeast England are “spilling over” with building projects already – loosening planning laws could turn the region into “one great, ugly, southern conurbation”.

Actually, the far bigger scandal is how “disgracefully sluggish” the supply of new homes is, says Matthew d’Ancona in Tortoise. It can take five years for new developments to wind their way through the current system. All the while house prices rise, earnings stay flat and the housing ladder is pulled further and further away from young people. The voters who “gave Johnson a bloody nose in Chesham” might be socially liberal, David Cameron Tories, but for decades the unspoilt views from their homes – or second homes – have been prioritised over the life chances of the young. The by-election result was not a “liberal uprising”, but a “reactionary reflex”. Which is exactly why Johnson needs to ignore the Nimbys and press ahead. “Fire up the concrete mixers. Pour, baby, pour.”

🏘 The real problem with housebuilding in Britain isn’t the planning system, but the mafia-like “cartel” of companies that dominates the industry, says Liam Halligan in The Spectator. The biggest firms, including Taylor Wimpey, Barratt and Persimmon, slow down construction to push up prices. The houses they do build are often “shoddy”, and the cladding scandal has demonstrated the dangers of defective workmanship. Persimmon made a profit of more than £1bn in 2018; meanwhile, owner-occupancy rates among 25- to 34-year-olds have “plunged” from 70% in the mid-1990s to 40% now. “The Tories must now confront the power of housebuilders and side firmly with young, aspiring buyers.”