Gove defends lower housing targets to avoid Tory revolt

A fall in housing targets in the face of a massive revolt by Tory MPs makes the government look “strong”, said Michael Gove.

The government watered down local housing targets to avoid the first major Commons rebellion from Rishi Sunak’s premiership.

Labor has accused the Prime Minister of being ‘weak’, but Housing Secretary Mr Gove has insisted the Government is implementing promised reforms to the planning system to ensure new homes were built.

“I think it gives the impression that the government is strong because we are delivering the planning reform that we promised a year ago,” he told the BBC.

Theresa Villiers led the backbench revolt (Jacob King/PA)

“When I first came here I said we wanted to have a planning system that puts beauty and local democracy at the heart of our planning system, that’s what we have now through close engagement with MPs who really care about getting the right houses in the right places.”

In a letter to MPs on Monday, Mr Gove said the Leveling and Regeneration Bill would be amended to abolish mandatory local targets for housing construction.

Mr Gove said he recognizes ‘there is no really objective way of calculating how many new homes are needed in an area’ but that ‘the housing planning process has to start 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.

Labor Party Conference 2022
Lisa Nandy has accused Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove of weakness in the face of a Tory revolt (Peter Byrne/PA)

The bill is expected to return to the House of Commons next week for the second day of its report stage.

The move represents a victory for a group of Tory backbenchers led by former Tory cabinet minister Theresa Villiers and Tory MP Bob Seely, who had proposed a series of amendments to the government’s landmark bill that would have meant radical changes to the planning system.

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

Proponents of the proposal said it would protect the environment and ensure that communities are not forced to accept unwanted development.

But some Tories have criticized the proposal, with co-author of the 2019 Tory manifesto Robert Colville saying it would “enshrine ‘Nimbyism’ as a guiding 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 in what is built in their piece”.

She added: ‘The compromise we have achieved shows that positive change can be achieved through careful scrutiny of legislation.’

Isle of Wight MP Mr Seely said ‘well over 100 Tory MPs’ had backed the changes, which would make the government’s housing and planning agenda ‘more conservative than the one we have now “.

He said: “The new language we have agreed on will work with communities, addressing the character of the areas and celebrating the beauty of good design. He understands the need for farmland, will have a significant focus on brownfields rather than greenfield development, and will help provide housing for young people.

Labor’s Lisa Nandy strongly criticized the government’s decision, calling it “unacceptable in the midst of a housing crisis”.

The Shadow Communities Secretary said: “We offered Labor votes to defeat the rebels, but Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove appear to have chosen the party over the country.

“It’s so weak. In power but not in power.

Other changes agreed by Mr Gove include levying a higher infrastructure tax on the development of new land, taking action to prevent land set-aside and ending ‘duty to co-operate’ which forces rural and suburban areas to meet the housing needs of neighboring towns.

In the letter, Mr Gove said the government would ‘invest more homes in the North and Midlands to relieve pressure on the South’.

The government has also promised to consult on the requirement for planning permission before residential property can be rented out on websites such as Airbnb.

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