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Sunak backs down on homebuilding targets after pressure from Tory MPs | Planning Policy


Rishi Sunak must drop mandatory housing construction targets to avoid an embarrassing backbench rebellion, prompting criticism that he is putting party unity ahead of the national interest.

The move, which comes amid a national housing crisis, will spark fresh concerns that the Prime Minister is too weak to take on unruly Tory backbenchers.

The capitulation came after up to 100 Tory MPs threatened to back an amendment that would effectively force the government to scrap the target of building 300,000 homes a year in England.

Instead the target will be ‘advisory’ and councils will be allowed to build fewer houses if they can show that achieving it would significantly change the character of an area, an exemption which should apply particularly to rural and suburban communities.

The move has been described as ‘extremely worrying’ by housing campaigners, but saves Sunak and housing secretary Michael Gove from a humiliating showdown in the Commons. They were forced to vote on the Leveling and Regeneration Bill last month when the rebellion first broke out.

For weeks, No 10, Gove and rebel leaders Theresa Villiers and Bob Seely held meetings to find a “landing zone” that could satisfy both sides and avoid another blue-on-blue row over planning.

Sources suggested the government initially hoped to buy off Tory opponents by offering to add amendments to the bill.

These included new restrictions on ‘landbanking’ – the practice of buying land for investment without any development plans – and a crackdown on second homes, a problem in some tourist hotspots in Cornwall and Devon.

But the rebels refused to back down, and the Guardian understands that the request to remove the mandatory housing target was agreed to by Sunak and Gove late last week.

In a letter to Tory MPs on Monday, Gove said he recognized ‘there is no truly objective way of calculating the number of new homes needed in an area’ but that ‘the process of making plans accommodation must begin with a number”.

The change would make the centrally determined target a “starting point”, with councils able to offer to build fewer houses if they faced “real constraints” or had to build at a density which would “significantly change the character” of their area. He said he was “grateful” to MPs who had pushed for “much needed change”.

Seely said the deal reached was a “happy compromise”, adding that the would-be rebels had “got everything we asked for, because the government said ‘it’s a good idea'”. He claimed that more than 100 Tory MPs backed the proposed amendment.

But a government source suggested the bill had been ‘watered down so much that you only have a glass of water left’.

The bill was withdrawn at report stage in the Commons, but could be reintroduced as early as next week with the addition of government amendments.

Changes in addition to the targets overhaul include the ability to fine businesses that fail to build on land despite planning consent and letting councils deny further permission in their area.

A registration system for short-term rentals will also be created, with ministers considering whether new planning permission should be granted for homes to be turned into Airbnb-style rental properties.

Other changes touted as fulfilling Sunak’s leadership campaign promises over the summer included protecting the greenbelt by issuing new guidelines to councils saying they would not need to consider such land to deliver houses.

Sunak’s attempt to quell a rebellion could draw criticism from another group of Tory MPs, who had urged him to stand firm.

Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick reportedly strongly supported the mandatory objective and presumption in favor of development.

High-ranking backbenchers have already criticized the rebels. Simon Clarke, the former leveling secretary, said their proposed amendment was “very wrong” and would only cement “fundamental intergenerational injustice”.

Sajid Javid, another former Housing Secretary, had previously warned that scrapping the mandatory target would “reverse meaningful policy” and represent “a colossal failure of political leadership”.

Other critics of the amendment include Robert Colville, who helped draft the 2019 Conservative manifesto.

Lisa Nandy, the shadow upgrade secretary, said it was “unconscionable in the midst of a housing crisis” to drop the mandatory target. Labor had offered to back the government, she said, meaning the rebels would have been easily defeated, but it was understood Sunak did not want to rely on opposition votes to push through the bill. law.

Nandy claimed Sunak and Gove put ‘party before country’ and added: ‘It’s so weak. The prime minister and cabinet are in office but not in power.

The Priced Out campaign, which lobbies the government to ensure more affordable housing is built, said it was an “incredibly worrying” development as the target was “a key tool in getting the homes whose we need”.



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