Rishi Sunak pulled a vote on his UK government’s housebuilding plans as dozens of Conservative Members of Parliament threatened the first major rebellion of his premiership.
Some 47 Tory rank and file backbenchers had signed an amendment to the Levelling-Up and Regeneration Bill that would have banned the imposition on local councils of mandatory housebuilding targets. The bill is set to return to the House of Commons for debate on Wednesday, and a vote was due to take place next Monday.
That left Sunak — who has a working majority of 69 — facing defeat if Labour and other opposition parties backed the rebels.
While the bill will still be debated on Wednesday, a vote will no longer go ahead on Monday, a government official told Bloomberg, blaming a congested parliamentary timetable. They said Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove will continue to engage with MPs over the coming weeks and that they hoped to be able to hold the vote before Christmas.
The decision to delay the vote is evidence that Sunak faces a difficult time managing an unruly Conservative Party, which has become defined by rebellions on a wide range of policy issues that have hamstrung successive governments. It also gives party managers more time to hammer out a compromise with potential rebels.
The proposed change to the bill was one of several put forward by Former Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers to alter planning. Late on Tuesday, she hailed the government’s decision to pull the vote as a “significant victory” for rank-and-file Tories.
‘Strength of Feeling’
“It shows that ministers know that they need to listen to us and they need more time to come up with a solution,” she said in a text message. “We cannot go on as we are with these top-down excessive targets. We must have change.”
She added that the level of support for her amendment showed the “strength of feeling there is on this issue.”
Planning and housebuilding have long been a point of friction in the party, which traditionally dominates in leafy, rural areas. The rebels, concerned about a voter backlash in their heartlands, argue local communities should have more say over where homes are built.
“A central target cannot recognize the different pressures in different parts of the country,” one of the potential rebels, Damian Green, wrote on Tuesday in the ConservativeHome website. “National averages for house prices are meaningless in the real world because the same house will be many times the price on the outskirts of Sevenoaks as the outskirts of Sunderland. This is precisely why we need local decisions, expressed in local plans, about the scale of development needed in each area.”
The Tories have promised to build 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s, but efforts by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson to implement a planning policy to enable a significant ramping up of housebuilding foundered amid divisions in his party, which blamed the plans in part for defeat in a key special election last year. Construction started on almost 206,000 new dwellings in 2021-22, according to Office for National Statistics data.
The current bill was introduced to Parliament in May, when Johnson was still premier.
The rebel proposals were criticized by the 2019 Tory manifesto co-author Robert Colvile, who said they would “enshrine ‘nimbyism’ as the governing principle of British society.” NIMBY stands for Not In My Back Yard.
Others changes proposed by Villiers include making it harder to turn homes into holiday lets and making it easier to incentivize construction on brownfield land rather than greenfield land, and greater penalties for developers which fail to build once planning permission is granted.
Sunak is still committed to the government’s target of building 300,000 homes a year, his spokesman Max Blain said.
“We want to work constructively to ensure we build more of the homes in the right places,” Blain told reporters on Tuesday. the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and its secretary of state, Michael Gove, are “very focused” on that, he said.
But the prime minister said during this year’s first Tory leadership contest — which he lost to Liz Truss — that his planning policy would be would be “brownfield, brownfield, brownfield,” suggesting he’s sympathetic to some of the rebel views.
“Over the last few years we’ve seen too many examples of local councils circumventing the views of residents by taking land out of the green belt for development, but I will put a stop to it,” he said at the time.
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