Michael Gove and Rishi Sunak have pledged to see off Conservative rebellions over housebuilding as they lay out their plans to increase homes in the UK.
Mr Gove, the housing secretary, was delivering a speech on his plans to increase the number of homes being built in the UK, with the government having previously missed its target to put up 300,000 annually.
Among the proposals are plans to ease the development of shops and takeaways into domestic properties, and a focus on developing brownfield sites – with Cambridge being singled out as an area where a “super squad” of planners will work on major housing developments.
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Even before Mr Gove’s speech started, backbench Conservative MPs voiced their concerns over the plans.
Anthony Browne, the Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire, said: “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.”
Asked about the comments, Mr Gove remained determined in his goal: “It will be the case that I’m sure that 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.”
The prime minister, asked about the comments from Mr Browne, said: “No one is doing mass house building in Cambridge, this is about adding a new urban quarter to Cambridge, which is something that local communities have spoken about.
“And of course that will be done in dialogue with local communities.
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Michael Gove today said the government was unapologetically focussing home building on cities because that was the right thing to do “economically, environmentally and culturally”.
What he could have added to that list is that an emphasis on urban areas also makes sense politically for this Tory administration.
The housing secretary is walking a line between trying to increase levels of development while also not petrifying voters and MPs in leafy parts of the country traditionally held by his party.
Just look at the response from South Cambridgeshire MP Anthony Browne to plans laid out for his region – “I will do everything I can to stop the government’s nonsense plans to impose mass housebuilding”, he tweeted.
Why the frosty reception?
Well, Mr Browne has the Liberal Democrats snapping at his heels and is no doubt mindful of the Tory by-election result in the suburban seat of Chesham and Amersham, where a thumping loss was widely put down to local concern about planning and homebuilding.
The practical problem is there’s real doubt as to whether an adequate new housing supply can be provided by just using urban brownfield sites.
The Home Builders Federation said it was “manifestly not possible” and called for the reintroduction of mandatory targets for local authorities and the cutting of environmental red tape they say is holding up the construction of 145,000 new dwellings.
The government says it wants new properties built in the right places. The concern of many is this really means as far away as possible from homeowning Tory voters.
“But I think it is really important to bring local communities along with you, we have housing targets, they are set by local communities and their locally elected representatives, that’s the right thing.
“What central government sitting in Whitehall and Westminster shouldn’t do is ride roughshod over those views, impose top-down targets, carpet over the countryside, I don’t want to do that.”
Conservative MP and Truss-era housing secretary Simon Clarke welcomed Mr Gove’s announcement – but said they “will take serious hard work to deliver” and his party will need to defeat “NIMBYism or NIMBYism will assuredly defeat us”.
NIMBY stands for “not in my backyard”, and is a name for people who oppose housebuilding and development close to them.
Mr Gove also denied his party had watered down its target to build 300,000 new homes a year.
Last year, the government intended to introduce a legal change to make the target a legal requirement.
However, they abandoned the plans after 60 backbenchers signed an amendment which would have scrapped the target.
Mr Gove said the 300,000 target is one the government is “building towards”, adding that inflation was making “delivering against that target more difficult”.
And the prime minister said they are “making good progress towards it.
In 2021/22, some 233,000 homes were completed.
The social housing waiting list is currently at around 1.2 million households.
Shadow housing secretary Lisa Nandy said: “It takes some serious brass neck for the Tories to make yet more promises on housing when the housing crisis has gone from bad to worse on their watch, and when housebuilding is on course to hit its lowest level since the Second World War.
“There are now 800,000 fewer homeowners under 45 than in 2010.
“One of their own ministers says they’ll miss their 300,000 homes a year target “by a country mile”.
“And housebuilding is falling off a cliff because Rishi Sunak rolled over to his own MPs last year.
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“The Home Builders Federation says today’s plans “do little to address the major reasons why housing supply is falling” and “much more decisive action is needed”.
“Over 200 small housebuilders recently said the government’s “current and proposed policies are devastating our industry”.