Rishi Sunak has watered down a manifesto commitment to build 300,000 new homes a year in the UK in an effort to stave off a rebellion by Conservative MPs who chiefly represent more prosperous southern constituencies.
The prime minister has faced growing opposition on planning reform between two tribes of MPs from different parts of England. While those representing northern seats are eager to liberalise restrictions, MPs in traditional Tory heartlands wish to avoid what they claim would amount to further excessive building.
Planning reform was also one of the main supply-side reforms that former premiers Boris Johnson and Liz Truss hoped could boost growth. But previous efforts to ease curbs have failed in the face of rebellions by Conservative backbenchers.
At least 60 MPs, mostly in southern seats, last week endorsed an amendment to the forthcoming Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill that would have scrapped mandatory national housebuilding targets and instead made them voluntary.
But in a letter to MPs on Monday, levelling up secretary Michael Gove said mandatory targets would now only be “advisory”, with local councils having the option to build fewer homes.
“There is no truly objective way of calculating how many new homes are needed in an area,” Gove wrote, adding that the target would be a “starting point, a guide that is not mandatory”.
In an effort to tackle concerns among both sets of MPs, Gove said the government would be “investing more homes in the north and the Midlands to relieve pressure on the south”.
Several of the Tory rebels who had hoped to defeat the government welcomed the U-turn. Theresa Villiers, the former environment secretary, who led the rebellion, said Sunak and Gove had “listened and moved in our direction.”
“What is proposed will go a long way in rebalancing the system and the scrapping of mandatory central housing building targets is a starting point,” she said. “Our proposals still place house building at the heart all the while giving local communities a say.”
Bob Seely, MP for the Isle of Wight, also welcomed the move to make housebuilding targets voluntary. He wrote on Twitter: “Targets will be more constrained by density and area’s existing character, preventing suburbs feeling like they’re being turned into cities and rural areas into suburbs.”
Seely added that the change of stance was “proof of a party working together” and praised Sunak for working with the rebels to resolve their concerns.
But the decision to scrap mandatory targets was criticised by the opposition Labour party, which argued that it would lead to fewer houses being built when supply is under increasing pressure.
Lisa Nandy, shadow levelling up secretary, described Sunak’s decision as “unconscionable in the middle of a housing crisis” and “weak”. She added that Labour had “offered [the government] . . . votes to defeat the rebels” and accused Sunak and Gove of putting “party before country”.