'We won't concrete over countryside': PM and Housing Sec set out plans to build new homes in cities

ITV News' Daniel Hewitt reports on the government's ambitious words but doubts remain over whether or not they can reach their goals

Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove have promised they "won't concrete over countryside" while unveiling changes to planning laws that will allow more house-building in inner city areas.

The prime minister and his housing secretary vowed to protect rural areas by allowing more shops to be converted into houses, and greater freedoms for extensions and loft conversions.

They also confirmed the government is on course to build one million new homes by the end of this Conservative Parliament, but both refused to say whether or not the other Tory manifesto pledge of 300,000 new homes a year would ever be met.

During a speech in London on Monday, Mr Gove used the platform to fiercely scrutinise Labour's policy of allowing development on green belt land - a tone sure to be increasingly replicated as the government gets ready for a likely general election next year.

The Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is asked: 'The other manifesto pledge was 300,000 new homes a year - does that still stand?'

The government's long-term plan for housing focuses on increased house-building in inner cities to better protect the countryside and densify urban areas, the senior Tories argue.

"We are unequivocally, unapologetically and intensively concentrating our biggest efforts in the hearts of our cities," Mr Gove said. "Because that's the right thing to do economically, environmentally, and culturally."

Meanwhile, on a visit to Birmingham on Monday, Mr Sunak said the Conservatives "want to make sure everyone who wants to own their own home can do so".

'You'd think there was an election around the corner', says ITV News' investigations correspondent Daniel Hewitt, as he discusses Tory plans to build new homes in cities

When asked about whether the manifesto pledge of 300,000 new homes a year still stands, Mr Sunak told reporters at a housing development site in the West Midlands: "We are making good progress towards that and actually if you look at what has happened over the past few years, we have seen some of the biggest years for new housing supply that we've seen in decades and in the last year that we have figures for, the highest number of first-time buyers in over 20 years.

"We are making progress, I'm proud of that progress and we're not stopping there. But we've got to do it in the right way, I don't want to concrete over the countryside, that's something that is very special about Britain.

"I also don't want to ride roughshod over the views of communities and their representatives. We want to build in the right places - that's more brownfield, expanding upwards and outwards, densifying our inner cities.

"These are practical ways to continue delivering homes. Our record on this is fantastic, 2.2 million homes since 2010, but we're not stopping there."

Last year the government missed its 300k target, with 233,000 new homes completed in 2021/22, while a 2019 study by Heriot-Watt University said England alone needed 340,000 new homes a year to meet current demand.

ITV News' Investigations Correspondent Daniel Hewitt asks Michael Gove: 'Why should voters believe a word of what you've just said?'

What do the government's newly announced housing reforms include?

  • A review of permitted development rights to allow shops and takeaways to be converted into homes without needing planning permission - these rights already exist for some properties, like office blocks, with conversions accounting for 22,770 new homes in 2021/22

  • A renewed focus on building new homes in urban areas rather than "concreting over the countryside"

  • A new "urban quarter" in Cambridge - boosted by a new "super squad" of planners working to clear obstacles in the planning process for major housing developments

  • A £24 million fund for training in the skills needed to increase housebuilding

  • An 'Office for Place' - to lead a design revolution, making sure new homes are "beautiful"

What are people saying about the plans?

Housing will be a key battleground ahead of the next general election and the Tory government has faced repeated criticism for its housing policy and unmet targets.

As always the latest announcement will be met by a certain amount of 'nimbyism', but some critics are sceptical about whether the reforms will have a real impact on housing stock.

Property consultancy Knight Frank's head of planning, Stuart Baillie, said plans to expand permitted development rights are "unlikely to have meaningful impact on housing supply", resulting in hundreds rather than thousands of new homes.

Meanwhile, the Local Government Association (LGA) has thrown doubt on the proposals to expand permitted development rights, arguing they could lead to more substandard homes.

Councillor Shaun Davies, chairman of the LGA, said: "Premises such as offices, barns and shops are not always suitable for housing.

"Further expanding permitted development rights risks creating poor quality residential environments that negatively impact people's health and wellbeing, as well as a lack of affordable housing or suitable infrastructure.

"It is disappointing that the Government have ignored their own commissioned research that concluded that homes converted through a planning application process deliver higher quality homes than those converted via permitted development rights."

Within hours of Mr Gove's speech on Monday, South Cambridgeshire MP Anthony Browne opposed what he called "the Government's nonsense plans to impose mass housebuilding on Cambridge".

His response was primarily motivated by concern about the impact on local resources, with Mr Browne arguing the area has "quite literally run out of water".

But the plans were also met with some optimism.

Victoria Hills, chief executive of the Royal Town Planning Institute, said they would "make a significant contribution to alleviating the pressure placed on England's planning services" while Ryan Shorthouse of centre-right think tank Bright Blue said they were "strong steps towards achieving greater and greener homes".

'Labour politicians, with a few exceptions, have failed to deliver housing in urban areas', says Michael Gove during a speech in London

Reflecting on last week's inflation slow-down as a sign of the government's progress in improving the economic outlook, Mr Gove said: "Underpinning our long-term plan for economic recovery is a long-term plan for housing. And the first and most important component of that plan is our programme of urban regeneration and a new inner city renaissance.

"Renaissance because we want to ensure that our cities have all the ingredients for success that we identified in our levelling-up white paper last year as the Medici model."

He claimed the Conservatives plan is in "direct contrast" with Labour, who he said "have failed to deliver housing in urban areas".

But Lisa Nandy, Labour's shadow housing secretary, said: "It takes some serious brass neck for the Tories to make yet more promises when the housing crisis has gone from bad to worse on their watch, and when housebuilding is on course to hit its lowest rate since the Second World War because Rishi Sunak rolled over to his own MPs.

"We don't need more reviews, press releases or empty promises, we need bold action to get Britain building."

Ms Nandy has already announced plans to make it easier to build on unsightly parts of the green belt under a future Labour government, and a pledge to restore the 300,000 homes target.

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