HOUSEBUILDING in Swindon could accelerate if the prime minister has his way.

Boris Johnson announced in Tuesday's speech about building Britain back to recovery that planning laws would be changed to speed up new projects.

He said: “Why are we so slow at building homes by comparison with other European countries?

“In 2018 we built 2.25 homes per 1,000 people, Germany managed 3.6, the Netherlands 3.8, France 6.8. Time is money, and the newt-counting delays in our system are a massive drag on the productivity and the prosperity of this country.”

Under changes due to come in by October, empty shops can be changed into other commercial use – such as cafes or offices – without specific consent, and more commercial buildings can be converted to flats without permission from councils. Empty offices or shops can be knocked down without consent too, as long as they are replaced by housing.

But the PM's criticisms of the current system – and particularly the comment about newts – didn’t find favour in Swindon.

The borough council’s cabinet member for strategic planning, Gary Sumner, is driving through the 8,000 home New Eastern Village expansion.

He said: “Swindon has a very positive planning environment, with sites which are captured within our adopted Local Plan being dealt with efficiently and effectively.

“Where such sites haven’t delivered the quality required we have had to occasionally refuse and encourage a new submission, such as Lotmead, where we have worked very positively with the applicant to deliver a much higher quality consent.

“Delivering the consent is only one part of the story and where many sites are promoted it then requires that site obtain consent and then to be sold to a developer, which naturally delays the build.

“Swindon has worked very hard to secure over £100m of infrastructure to enable stalled housing developments to come forward and I’m proud of that record.”

And with great crested newts being quite common in areas of the borough, Coun Sumner said: “They are a European protected species and I’m delighted that under our great crested newt district licensing scheme we are able to find suitable homes for them which don’t unduly delay the development process.”

The leader of the Labour group of councillors Jim Grant was not impressed.

He said: “The announcement contained precious little about combatting climate change. In fact, the derogatory remark about 'newt-counting' appears to imply that environmental protections are actually going to be relaxed, not strengthened, under this government.

“Like so many of the things the prime minister says, his 'jokes' reveal both his ignorance of, and his true feelings on, climate change.”

Old Town councillor Jane Milner-Barry added: "Mr Johnson blames the newts. The newts are not to blame. The blame lies with the developers who don’t build on the land they own. Because in that way they keep the price of housing up.

"But the PM is not going to blame the big development companies that are so generous to the Conservative Party is he? No, he wants to make life easier for them.

"So what is going to happen to the obligation for new developments to contribute to an increase in biodiversity?

"Mr Johnson promised to 'scythe through red tape'. Bad news for the newts. Bad news for all of us."

The Wiltshire Amphibian and Reptile Group endorsed a statement by the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust, which said: “There’s no need for a conflict between economic growth and newt conservation.

"With better regulation and good conservation programmes, newts can thrive alongside a prospering economy.

"Slashing red tape and dismantling legislation is not the answer. More imaginative implementation, focusing on outcomes for nature while making processes simpler for developers, can make a real difference, as we are seeing with district level licensing schemes for newts.

“We look forward to working with government to ensure the recovery from the current pandemic helps wildlife as well as people.”