Labour leader rounds on Tories over abandoning housing targets ahead of local elections

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Keir Starmer yesterday accused Rishi Sunak of “killing the dream of home ownership for a generation” as he used his last prime ministers’ question time before today’s local elections to attack the government’s decision to water down local housebuilding targets.

The Labour leader said the government’s decision, taken before Christmas, to propose changes to planning policy following a backbench Tory rebellion on so-called mandatory local housing numbers, amounted to “kicking them [homebuyers] when they are down”.

Keir Starmer PMQs May 2023

The Labour leader said Conservative councillors ‘simply do not want to build the houses that local people need’

The prime minister responded by accusing Labour of wanting to “concrete over the green belt and ride roughshod over local communities”, but the exchange came amid growing signs of Conservative division over the issue, with the Times this morning reporting that backbench MPs were concerned the Tory party was becoming the “party of nimbyism”.

The exchange also comes days after Labour launched its own housing strategy, with pledges to reverse the recent proposed changes, “reintroduce requirements on local areas to build in line with local need” and give first time buyers and local people “first dibs” on new homes. Labour said it also plans to introduce a “comprehensive mortgage guarantee scheme” to support homebuyers if elected to government.

Starmer started prime ministers questions by stating that 850,000 home owners were already paying higher mortgages because of last autumn’s financial crisis, with this figure set to rise to 930,000, and by pointing out that an average first time buyer’s deposit had risen to £9,000, which would take four years to save on average.

He said: “For most people, four more years of scrimping is a hammer-blow to their ambitions.

“Now he is kicking them when they are down, because his decision to scrap housing targets is killing the dream of home ownership for a generation,” and called on Sunak to reverse the changes.

Starmer added: “The only power the Prime Minister has given to local communities is not to build houses. We know why he will not change course, he admitted it last month: his councillors simply do not want to build the houses that local people need, so he has given them a way out.”

Sunak said in response that the new planning rules put local people in control of new housing. He said: “The right hon. and learned Gentleman wants to impose top-down housing targets, concrete over the green belt and ride roughshod over local communities,” accusing Starmer of breaking a promise to grant more power to local communities.”

Rishi Sunak PMQs May 2023

The prime minister accused Starmer of wanting to ‘ride roughshod over local communities’

The Commons debates follow weeks of industry debate about the proposals, the consultation for which closed last month. Planning consultant Lichfields, commissioned by the Home Builders Federation and the Land Promoters and Developers Federation, estimates the government’s planned changes will result in 77,000 fewer homes being built each year, largely as a result of the shift in green belt rules. However, conservation and countryside groups such as the CPRE have been largely supportive.

The Times today reported growing concern among some in the Tory ranks over the shift in the party to opposing housebuilding. The paper reported former housing secretary Simon Clarke, MP for Middlesbrough South & East Cleveland, as saying: “We cannot become the party of nimbyism. It will be hugely damaging to the country and our electoral fortunes.”

He added that it was a “huge mistake to drop the targets. We should have resisted that even if it meant relying on opposition votes.” At the time of the Tory backbench rebellion on the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill which prompted the dropping of the “mandatory” local targets, Keir Starmer had offered to the government to support its amendments, enabling the bill to pass with opposition support.

>> See also: Warning of complete collapse in local plan-making after Gove reform announcement

>> See also: Steve Morgan interview: its like the government wants to destroy the industry

>> See also:  Inside the council planning department resource crisis

The paper also quoted Justin Tomlinson, MP for North Swindon, as saying in a private WhatsApp group that rising housing costs “plays badly ahead of polling”, with Mark Jenkinson, the Tory MP for Workington allegedly saying on the same group that “Short-termism on housing will cost us dearly.”

The housing minister last week said the government had received 26,000 responses to its consultation on the proposed national policy reforms and no timeline for when it will respond to it, leaving it unclear when exactly the reforms will come in to force. Reports over the weekend suggested the government is also now looking at reintroducing the Help to Buy policy to support first time buyers, which was only just scrapped in March.

Labour at the weekend said it would oversee “robust” planning reforms if elected to office, alongside a number of demand-side reforms designed to drive home ownership rates up to 70% across the UK. The party said it wanted to build enough homes to make ownership affordable, and would introduce policies to:

  • Give first-time buyers “first dibs” on new houses in their area
  • Stop foreign buyers buying up swathes of new housing developments
  • Introduce a comprehensive mortgage guarantee scheme
  • Stop speculators reaping windfall profits from sale of land
  • Strengthen development corporations to support local leaders with housing and infrastructure plans

Lisa Nandy, shadow housing secretary, said Labour was “proudly” the party of home ownership. She said: “In rolling over to his own MPs, Rishi Sunak abandoned a whole generation of young people aspiring to own their own home.

“We’ll reverse these reckless changes and reintroduce requirements for local areas to make sure enough homes are being built where they’re needed. It isn’t right that hard working young people are being priced out of their areas, squeezed by rents, and having their ambition to buy a house taken from them.”

Housing Today has been campaigning for the government to recommit to the policies necessary to deliver against its 300,000 homes a year housebuilding target.

A Fair Deal for Housing campaign 

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Housing Today believes the government should not back away from its manifesto pledge of building 300,000 new homes a year by the middle of the decade. We badly need more homes and a lack of supply is a major factor in creating problems of affordability for both buyers and renters.

Over the next few months, Housing Today  will be exploring potential solutions to help us ramp up housebuilding to 300,000. These are likely to, include different ways of working, funding asks of government and policy ideas that could boost housebuilding.

We want to hear from you: what do you think can make a difference at a policy level?

What can the industry do better?

We believe that, with the right commitments from ministers and the industry, it is possible to build more homes and help the government to meet its objectives to “build beautiful”, improve quality and safety, boost home ownership and level up the UK.

Click here to find out more about the campaign

To contribute ideas to our A Fair Deal for Housing Ideas Zone database, click here.

A Fair Deal for Housing is part of the Building the Future Commission.