Government waters down compulsory house building targets after Tory backlash

ITV News deputy political editor Anushka Asthana reports, as critics accuse the Conservative Party of bowing to 'nimby-ism'

In the midst of a national housing crisis, the government appears to have been forced into a major U-turn, to head off what could have been an embarrassing backbench revolt.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has dropped plans for compulsory housebuilding targets, replacing them with advisory ones which would give councils more room for manoeuvre.

Reports on Monday said the government was set to water down housebuilding targets after “well over 100 Tory MPs” threatened to rebel over planning reform.

In a letter to MPs on Monday, seen by the PA news agency, Communities Secretary Michael Gove said the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill would be amended to abolish mandatory housebuilding targets.

Mr Gove said he recognises “there is no truly objective way of calculating how many new homes are needed in an area” but that the “plan making process for housing has to start with a number”.

The change would make the centrally determined target a “starting point”, with councils able to propose building fewer homes if they faced “genuine constraints” or would have to build at a density that would “significantly change the character” of their area.

In a later release, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said the Government will set out changes to the Bill “to place local communities at the heart of the planning system” on Tuesday.

The Bill is expected to return to the Commons next week for day two of its report stage.

Mr Gove told ITV News: "It's a manifesto commitment to build 300,000 homes and it's one that we're absolutely determined to meet.

"It will be difficult in the next year, not because of the planning system, but because of inflation and the cost of building materials in a tight labour market

"But I believe the changes today will help us to meet that target overall."

Minister for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Michael Gove Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Mr Gove's statement on Monday said: “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.

“These principles have always been key to our reforms and we are 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 decision represents a victory for a group of Tory backbenchers led by Conservative former cabinet minister Theresa Villiers and Conservative MP Bob Seely, who had proposed a series of amendments to the Government’s flagship Bill that would have meant sweeping changes to the planning system.

Theresa Villiers led the backbench revolt Credit: Jacob King/PA

Around 60 MPs had signed an amendment that would have scrapped mandatory housing targets and the requirement for councils to demonstrate a five-year supply of housing land.

Supporters of the proposal said this would protect the environment and ensure communities were not forced to accept unwelcome development.

Accusations of 'nimby-ism'

But some Conservatives were critical of the proposal, with 2019 Tory manifesto co-author Robert Colville saying it would “enshrine ‘nimbyism’ as the governing principle of British society”.

Welcoming Mr Gove’s announcement, Ms Villiers said the Government had “listened” and the reforms would “rebalance the planning system and give local communities a greater say over what is built in their neighbourhood”.

She added: “The compromise we have secured shows that positive change can be achieved through backbench scrutiny of legislation.”

Isle of Wight MP Mr Seely said that “well over 100 Tory MPs” had supported the changes, which would make the Government’s housing and planning agenda “more conservative than the one we currently have”.

He said: “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.”

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Mr Seely rejected accusations the Conservative Party has nothing to offer to young people, saying: “This is going to be much better for younger people.

“In places like the Isle of Wight, or places like the tip of Cornwall or Cumbria, this is really going to help young people because we can say you can dramatically increase your targets for local affordable housing, and that’s specifically for younger people.

“So, this is actually a really big win.

“If you’re a developer and you want to sit on property for years and years, this is not good news for you. But actually, if you’re a council that wants to get on and build and if you’re a community that wants to control more of its destiny, this is good news.

“This is good news for everybody.”

Lisa Nandy. Credit: Jane Barlow/PA

Labour’s Lisa Nandy strongly criticised the Government’s decision, describing it as “unconscionable in the middle of a housing crisis”.

The shadow communities secretary tweeted: “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.”

Other changes agreed to by Mr Gove include charging a higher infrastructure levy on greenfield development, taking action to prevent land banking, and ending the “duty to cooperate” which sees rural and suburban areas required to help meet the housing need of neighbouring cities.

In the letter, Mr Gove said the Government would be “investing more homes in the north and the Midlands to relieve pressure on the south.”

The Government has also promised to consult on requiring planning permission before residential property can be let out on websites such as AirBnB.