Rishi Sunak caves in to Tory planning reform rebels

Rishi Sunak - Tolga Akmen/Shutterstock
Rishi Sunak - Tolga Akmen/Shutterstock

Rishi Sunak on Monday night climbed down on key planks of his planning reforms in the face of rebellions by backbench Tories.

The Prime Minister ditched compulsory house-building targets for local areas after 60 Conservative MPs threatened to vote against his flagship Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill.

The Telegraph understands that he is also set to back down on the ban on onshore wind farms after 34 Tories, including Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, demanded that it be lifted.

Discussions on the issue are still under way between rebels – led by Simon Clarke, the former levelling up secretary – and ministers. One possible compromise is allowing new onshore farms if developers can show that there is consent locally.

The climbdown on house-building saw Michael Gove, the Levelling Up Secretary, agree to change his Bill to make it clear that centrally-dictated targets are merely “advisory”. They become “a starting point, a guide that is not mandatory”.

The new rules will mean town halls will be allowed to build fewer homes than Whitehall believes are needed if they can show that hitting the targets would significantly change the character of an area.

Mr Gove has pledged to make it clear that more homes will be built in urban areas and in the North and the Midlands as part of the Government’s vision to level up the country.

In another change, town halls will be allowed to introduce registration schemes for short-term holiday lets and there will be a consultation on allowing them to require a change of use planning application if there is a switch from residential to short-term “Airbnb-type” use.

Campaigners say that, in places like Devon and Cornwall, so many people are turning homes into Airbnbs that the number of affordable homes is reduced, in turn increasing the pressure to build more properties.

On Monday night, Mr Gove insisted that the changes would not affect the Tories’ manifesto commitment to build 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s.

“The 300,000 target remains,” he told The Telegraph. “It was a manifesto commitment to which we are still committed.”

Mr Gove denied his change of heart on planning targets was a climbdown, saying it was merely “constructive engagement” with backbench MPs and a “sensible compromise”.

He said it would incentivise town halls to adopt local development plans, and that would lead to more homes that communities welcomed.

“When I came into this job I said we need to create neighbourhoods not dormitories, and that is what this will achieve,” he said.

“What we will see is more homes being built in places where we need them. The current planning system is dysfunctional and in need of reform. We need to change it to ensure that developments have the characteristics that communities cherish.”

The change of heart came after 60 Conservative MPs signed an amendment laid by Bob Seely and Theresa Villiers calling on the Government to scrap its target that 300,000 homes should be built each year.

Facing the threat of a huge loss of authority for the Prime Minister, the Government last month pulled key votes on the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill.

Following talks with the rebels, Mr Gove on Monday agreed to make the series of changes to ensure that the Bill can proceed. The changes also include a crackdown on developers keeping land unused even though it has been granted planning permission – a trick that keeps prices high and puts pressure on councils to find even more land to build on.

There will be a series of government reviews, including one on making it easier to build on brownfield land. The reforms will cut the powers of planning inspectors as part of a “rebalancing of the relationship between local councils and the Planning Inspectorate”.

Up to now, the Planning Inspectorate has in almost all cases refused to accept that exceptional circumstances are present and indicated that the full house-building target must be met.

Under the reformed Bill, inspectors will be required to take a more “reasonable” and “pragmatic” approach to “plans that take account of the concerns of the local community”.

Ms Villiers, a former environment secretary, said: “These reforms will rebalance the planning system and give local communities a greater say over what is built in their neighbourhood.

“The Government has listened and will amend planning rules so that councils that are subject to genuine constraints will be permitted to reduce their target. This will apply if meeting the centrally determined target would significantly change the character of an area, for example from suburban to high-rise urban.

“The compromise we have secured shows that positive change can be achieved through backbench scrutiny of legislation.”

Mr Seely said: “We know how many communities have been battling against bad development. Supported by well over 100 Tory MPs, we have helped ministers shape a housing and planning agenda that is more conservative than the one we currently have.

“Targets will be advisory, not mandatory. The power of planning inspectors is weakened. Rules which have helped developers force councils to release land will be weakened.

“The new language we’ve agreed will work with communities, speaking to the character of areas and celebrating the beauty of good design. It understands the need for farmland, will significantly emphasise brownfield over greenfield development, and will help deliver homes for young people.”