Tory approach to housebuilding ‘targeted not protectionist’, says Sunak

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has said Government housebuilding efforts are not about ‘uncontrolled development’.

Dominic McGrath
Monday 24 July 2023 22:19 BST
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said ‘communities must have a say’ (Ben Birchall/PA)
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said ‘communities must have a say’ (Ben Birchall/PA) (PA Wire)

Rishi Sunak has said Government housebuilding efforts are not about “uncontrolled development”, as he moved to reassure Tory backbenchers concerned over planning reform.

It comes after Housing Secretary Michael Gove used a speech in London to set out a range of planning reforms, including on leasehold reform, simplifying planning procedures, expanding planning capacity, and regenerating and reviving inner cities.

The proposals include developing a new urban quarter in Cambridge with space for homes, art facilities, laboratories and green areas.

Writing in The Times, the Prime Minister said: “This is not about uncontrolled development of the countryside.

“It is not just about more homes of any kind, anywhere, no matter what communities think.

Homes must be built in the right places, where it makes sense. Communities must have a say.”

Downing Street earlier insisted that Mr Sunak stands by the Conservative manifesto commitment to build 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s, after the Prime Minister hit out at “top-down targets” on housebuilding.

Mr Gove also expressed his commitment to the target, but did not say when it would be reached.

Ministers are well short of the figure after the Prime Minister last year made it advisory rather than mandatory as he looked to see off a potential backbench rebellion.

In The Times, Mr Sunak wrote: “Our approach is not protectionist, it’s targeted. More homes in the places where people want and need them.”

There were signs of local Tory opposition to his housing strategy as Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire Anthony Browne vowed to “do everything” to stop the “nonsense plans to impose mass housebuilding on Cambridge”.

Mr Browne lashed out at the plan, tweeting: “I will do everything I can to stop the Government’s nonsense plans to impose mass housebuilding on Cambridge, where all major developments are now blocked by the Environment Agency because we have quite literally run out of water. Our streams, rivers and ponds already run dry.”

Mr Gove on Monday said he believed his colleagues would be won over by the detail of the plans.

The senior Tory said: “It will be the case that, I’m sure, Conservative backbenchers and others, once they have a chance to look at our plans, will realise that this is in the national interest and that’s why we’re acting.”

Labour demanded the Government publish any impact assessment it carried out into the move to ditch the compulsory housebuilding target.

Shadow housing secretary Lisa Nandy said: “The Government has never met its target to build 300,000 homes a year and today’s announcement doesn’t come close to matching the scale of ambition needed to fix the housing crisis.

“Families and young people desperate to get on the housing ladder deserve to know what assessment the Government made of Rishi Sunak’s reckless decision to scrap housing targets, which has pushed housebuilding off a cliff.”

Concerns have been raised that Mr Gove’s proposals to slash red tape to pave the way for more conversions of shops and takeaways into houses could lead to substandard housing.

Polly Neate, chief executive of the charity Shelter, described his speech as “a real mixed bag”.

“We need proper investment to build much-needed genuinely affordable homes, not more piecemeal reform,” she said.

“Converting takeaways and shops into homes and restricting building to city centres won’t help. It could risk creating poor quality, unsafe homes that cause more harm than good.

“When we are losing more social housing than we build, the Government must work with councils to deliver the quality homes local communities across the country need.

“The Secretary of State clearly agrees these homes are essential, so the Government should put its money where its mouth is and get on with building a new generation of social homes.”

Mr Gove argued for “gentle densification” of inner cities, saying the urban sprawl of the past has hurt productivity.

But Ant Breach, senior analyst at Centre for Cities, said densification will not solve every problem.

“Cities will need to expand outwards too, and this means green belt reform is essential. Only by building both up and out of cities will we start to close the gap on England’s 4.3 million missing homes.”

Mick Platt, director of the Residential Freehold Association, said the Government must “think carefully” about the challenges associated with high-density housing.

“Managing large, complex apartment buildings is not straightforward and the Government’s leasehold reform agenda risks pushing this responsibility on to residents, many of whom do not want it.”

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