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Government to remove mandatory housebuilding targets

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UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has dropped plans to impose mandatory housebuilding targets on local councils to avoid a rebellion by Conservative members of Parliament.

In a letter to MPs on Monday, communities secretary Michael Gove said the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill would be amended to abolish mandatory housebuilding targets.

In a letter to lawmakers, the housing minister, Gove, said new legislation aimed at boosting housing and infrastructure would make clear that the promise to build 300,000 homes every year by the mid-2020s was only a “starting point” and would be “advisory”.

“We have an urgent need in this country to build more homes so that everyone – whether they aspire to home ownership or not – can have a high-quality, affordable place to live. But our planning system is not working as it should," Gove said in a statement. 

“If we are to deliver the new homes this country needs, new development must have the support of local communities. That requires people to know it will be beautiful, accompanied by the right infrastructure, approved democratically, that it will enhance the environment and create proper neighbourhoods."

The decision was interpreted as a measure to avoid a rebellion within the Conservative Party led by former cabinet minister Theresa Villiers and MP Bob Seely. Around 60 MPs supported this 'rebellion', signing an amendment to scrap mandatory housing targets and the requirement for councils to demonstrate a five-year supply of housing land. 

Last month, the government was forced to delay a parliamentary vote on the legislation, which was a cornerstone of the party’s pledge in the 2019 general election. 

In a later release, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said the government will set out changes to the bill “to place local communities at the heart of the planning system”. 

Other changes to the bill include charging a higher infrastructure levy on greenfield development, taking action to prevent land banking, and ending the “duty to cooperate”, which sees rural and suburban areas required to help meet the housing need of neighbouring cities.

The government also promised to consult on requiring planning permission before a residential property can be let out on websites such as AirBnB.

Labour said the climbdown is “unconscionable” in a housing crisis and accused the Prime Minister of being "weak".

Labour’s Lisa Nandy tweeted: “We offered Labour votes to defeat the rebels, but Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove seem to have chosen party before country.

“This is so weak. In office but not in power.”

In response, Gove told the BBC that he thought the climbdown made the government "look strong", because it was "delivering on the planning reform that we promised a year ago". 

Welcoming Gove’s announcement, Villiers said the government had “listened” and the reforms would “rebalance the planning system and give local communities a greater say over what is built in their neighbourhood”.

"The compromise we have secured shows that positive change can be achieved through backbench scrutiny of legislation,” she added. 

Seely rejected accusations the Conservative Party has nothing to offer to young people, saying: “This is good news for everybody.”

The lack of affordable housing is a growing concern for the British population. Today, the demand for housing so radically outstrips supply that rough sleeping has increased by 165 per cent since 2010 and one in ten British families is reportedly living in overcrowded housing. 

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “The 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s remains our goal. The locally agreed housing targets will remain an important part of the planning system.

“What we are doing is recognising that there are local circumstances where situations can be different and it is right to recognise them.”

Over the last few years, the government has been unable to meet this target. In 2019-20 there were just 242,700 net additional dwellings, which fell to 216,490 in 2020-21, partly due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Make UK has recently called on the government to back the construction of low-energy modular homes to meet 20 per cent of its affordable housing target for new homes. 

The Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill is expected to return to the Commons next week for day two of its report stage.

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