Michael Gove has watered down the government’s target to build 300,000 homes every year following an angry backlash from his own party’s MPs.
A Commons vote on the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill had to be dropped last month after 60 Conservatives signed an amendment calling for the mandatory target to be scrapped.
But the legislation is due to return next week and opposition is said to be rising, so the housing secretary has now written to a number of MPs promising the target will instead be a “starting point” and become “advisory”.
In a statement released after the news broke, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said targets “remain an important part of the planning system”, but the government would now “consult on how these can better take account of local density”.
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Critics worry the dampening of the target will lead to even less stock for people hoping to get on to the housing market, especially as the cost of living crisis continues.
Labour’s shadow housing secretary Lisa Nandy accused the government of being “weak”, calling the move “unconscionable in the middle of a housing crisis”.
But Mr Gove said “new development must have the support of local communities”, and the government was “now going further by strengthening our commitment to build the right homes in the right places and put local people at the heart of decision-making”.
The new bill is meant to introduce a number of sweeping reforms to the planning system, but has resulted in anger from a section of the Conservative Party and the first real threat of rebellion under Rishi Sunak’s leadership.
MPs Therese Villiers and Bob Seely led the campaign against the housebuilding target, saying communities would be forced into accepting unwanted developments, and claimed more than 100 of their colleagues were now backing them.
But others on the Tory benches attacked their criticism, saying their amendment would “enshrine ‘nimbyism’ as the governing principle of British society”.
Sunak bottles battle with backbenchers over housing
It was Rishi Sunak’s first major showdown with rebel Tories. And he bottled it.
Michael Gove has raised the white flag in the government’s battle with Conservative MPs from the shires and the tree-lined suburbs who don’t want more house building in their leafy constituencies.
So a pledge written into his Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill to build 300,000 new homes a year has been ditched in a major victory for rebels, led by former cabinet minister Theresa Villiers.
It was a key pledge in the Tories’ 2019 manifesto and supporters claimed it was in keeping with Margaret Thatcher’s crusade for a property-owning democracy and new homes for younger votes.
But it has been obvious that a retreat was coming ever since the first whiff of rebellion a few weeks ago, when Gove – no doubt on the prime minister’s orders – postponed a Commons vote, fearing defeat.
Some senior Tories were furious. Sir Jake Berry, party chairman in Liz Truss’s brief premiership, fumed: “Conservatives need to deliver for the next generation if we ever expect them to vote for us.”
And Truss’s Levelling Up Secretary Simon Clarke blamed the failure to build more homes for the Tory vote in London collapsing, accusing the party of “pulling up the ladder” for younger voters.
Clarke is now doing battle with Gove over a ban on onshore wind farms in the same Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. What price a U-turn there.
Labour claims the PM is weak. It certainly looks like it.
Sky News understands Mr Gove and other ministers held lengthy meetings with the rebels over the past week and had now reached a compromise whereby the target will stay, but councils will be able to argue against developments where there were “genuine constraints” on delivering it.
Examples would include having to build at a density which would significantly change the character of an area to meet the target.
Other changes are also understood to have been made to the bill, including charging a higher infrastructure levy on greenfield development, taking action to prevent land banking – where developers buy land but hold on to it, rather than building on it – and ending the “duty to cooperate” for more rural areas to help meet the housing requirements of nearby cities.
Responding to the change in direction, Mr Seely said: “We know how many communities have been battling against bad development.
“Supported by well over 100 Tory MPs, we have helped ministers shape a housing and planning agenda which is more Conservative than the one we currently have.”
He added: “Targets will be advisory, not mandatory. The power of planning inspectors is weakened. Rules which have helped developers force councils to release land will be weakened.
“The new language we’ve agreed will work with communities, speaking to the character of areas and celebrating the beauty of good design. It understands the need for farmland, will significantly emphasise brownfield over greenfield development and will help deliver homes for young people.”
Ms Villiers also praised the move, saying: “These reforms will rebalance the planning system and give local communities a greater say over what is built in their neighbourhood.
“The compromise we have secured shows that positive change can be achieved through backbench scrutiny of legislation”.
In a statement, Mr Gove thanked backbenchers for “their hard work and support to drive forward these much-needed changes to create a planning system that works for all”.
The secretary of state added: “We have an urgent need in this country to build more homes so that everyone – whether they aspire to home ownership or not – can have a high-quality, affordable place to live. But our planning system is not working as it should.
“If we are to deliver the new homes this country needs, new development must have the support of local communities. That requires people to know it will be beautiful, accompanied by the right infrastructure, approved democratically, that it will enhance the environment and create proper neighbourhoods.”
But Ms Nandy attacked the decision, saying: “We offered Labour votes to defeat the rebels, but Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove seem to have chosen party before country.
“This is so weak. In office but not in power.”