Tory backbench rebellion halts PM’s planning reforms

Labour leader accuses Rishi Sunak of "killing off the dream of homeownership"

Tory backbench rebellion halts PM’s planning reforms

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has been forced to delay a vote on planning reforms in the face of a major backbench rebellion from Conservative MPs.

Some 47 MPs have reportedly signed an amendment to the Levelling Up bill, which would ban mandatory house building targets for councils in England.

The government is now likely to pull the vote on the bill, which was set for Monday, because even without Labour backing the amendment, due to the size of the rebellion the government could be dependent on the votes of the main opposition party to block it.

The backbench MPs’ amendments, proposed by former environment secretary Theresa Villiers, would make house building targets advisory and scrap the five-year land supply rule, which obliges councils to maintain sites for development.

Among the other amendments is a move to create stricter time-limits for developers to start a housing project once they have been granted planning permission, also known as ‘land banking’.

The BBC quoted a government source saying that the vote was nonetheless expected to go ahead before Christmas, blaming the delay on a “congested parliamentary timetable” resulting from the Autumn Statement.

Read more: Home building requires radical rethink in UK, says housing expert

Growing opposition to bill

Although the government has insisted that it is committed to building 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s, opposition to the bill has been growing from within the Conservative party ranks for some time.   

Rebel MP and former minister, Damian Green, justified his opposition to the bill, saying central targets “cannot recognise the different pressures in different parts of the country” and that the system needed to incentivise developers to build once they have received permission.

In an article this week, he wrote that the building of 300,000 homes a year would not have a significant effect of the affordability of homes.

He said that the principal reason for the government’s failure to achieve housebuilding targets was not due to the unwillingness of local councils to grant planning permission “because of pressure from hordes of NIMBY boomers” but because of the failure of the current administration to incentivise developers to build once they have received permission.

He also claimed that developers found it more profitable to build up an increasingly valuable land bank “than to flood the local market” with new homes in a short space of time.

“At the moment there are around a million permissions for homes granted, but where no home has been built,” he added.

Instead, he suggested that planning permission should be time-limited “or become increasingly and painfully expensive over time if the option to build is not exercised”.

Rebel MPs “selfish and wicked”

Robert Colvile, the director of the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), a centre-right think tank, accused the rebel MPs of being “selfish and wicked”, claiming their attempt to scupper the government’s targets could reduce the number of homes being built by up to 40%, adding that the impact could be even greater as the industry was already feeling the effects of the recession and the rise in interest rates.

Earlier this month, Taylor Wimpey, one of the largest home construction companies in the country, announced that it was reducing its house building plans following weaker home sales.

And Persimmon, which generated £3.6 billion in revenue last year, also reported falling sales, warning that it would have an impact on profit margins next year.

Writing in The Times newspaper, Colville said: “The actual effect would be to enshrine nimbyism as the governing principle of British society – to snap the levers that force councils to build and leave every proposed development at the mercy of the propertied and privileged.”

Read more: Top UK builders facing downturn

The former levelling up secretary Simon Clarke also expressed his disapproval, saying the abandonment of all housing targets “would be very wrong”, adding that it would be economically and socially “disastrous” and politically “insane”.

Meanwhile, Labour accused the prime minister of “running scared” of his own backbenchers, while the party’s leader, Keir Starmer, accused Sunak of “killing off the dream of homeownership”.

Lisa Nandy, the shadow housing secretary, was quoted in The Guardian newspaper saying the revolt and the government’s response were “a complete shambles”.

She said: “The government cannot govern, the levelling up agenda is collapsing and the housing market is broken. Pulling flagship legislation because you’re running scared of your own backbenchers is no way to govern.

“There is a case for reviewing how housing targets are calculated and how they can be challenged when disputed, but it is completely irresponsible to propose scrapping them without a viable alternative in the middle of a housing crisis.

“Labour will step up to keep this legislation moving. There is too much at stake for communities that have already been victims of Tory chaos and of a Prime Minister too weak to stand up to his own party.”