Rebel MP says government ’listening’ to her calls to scrap housing target as Labour accuses PM of being ’weak’

A senior Conservative MP has claimed ministers are “listening” to backbench concerns over planning reform and discussing a compromise after the government pulled a planned vote on the measures.

The comments by former environment secretary Theresa Villiers came as ministers were embroiled in a deepening political row as Labour leader Keir Starmer yesterday accused the prime minister of being “weak” for backing down in the face of a threatened 50-strong backbench rebellion.

Starmer said the government’s decision to pull a series of votes on the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, after rebels had tabled a series of amendments to the legislation, amounted to “killing off the dream of homeownership” and showed Rishi Sunak was “too weak to take on his own party”.

Theresa Villiers

Theresa Villiers said Gove was ‘listening’ to rebels’ concerns

Starmer’s message came as Tory MPs rounded on each other over planning for new homes, following the tabling of a series of amendments to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill by Villiers.

The Chipping Barnet MP used a debate over the Bill to welcome the postponing of the vote on the amendments, and indicate that housing secretary Michael Gove had told her he would use the delay created to seek a compromise “solution”.

Villiers has secured nearly 50 supporters for an amendment promising to scrap mandatory housing targets and the five-year land supply rule, and has submitted a total of 21 amendments including the introduction of a third party right of appeal in the planning system and an ending of the presumption in favour of sustainable development. The number of backers is enough to voerturn the government’s majority, given Labour support.

She said in the Commons debate, which was largely focused on the Bill’s levelling up measures, that MPs “must not lose the opportunity [provided by the bill] to remedy the flaws in the planning system […]” with housing targets having a “toxic” impact in local authorities.

She said: “They [housing targets]are undermining local control over planning decisions and creating pressure for development, which is damaging to the local environment and to the quality of life of our constituents.

“I welcome the indication from the Government—from the Secretary of State—that they are listening to Back Benchers on these crucial matters, which means so much to us and to the constituents whom we represent,” she said.

“Postponing report day two gives us all the opportunity to seek to find a solution that delivers the right homes in the right places and that restores and retains the primacy of local decision making in planning.”

simon clarke

Simon Clarke called for MPs to back the retention of housing targets

However, Teeside MP Simon Clarke called for backbenchers to drop the amendments forcing the government to scrap housing targets, despite having promised to scrap housing targets himself as housing secretary in Liz Truss’ government. He said on Twitter that the Conservative vote had “collapsed” in London because not enough homes had been built, and that “you can’t make the case for popular Conservatism if you can’t afford to buy, or even rent.”

His message came days after the co-author of the 2019 Conservative manifesto, Centre for Policy Studies director Robert Colvile, accused supporters of the anti-development amendments of being “selfish and wicked”.

In contrast, yesterday, one of the key supporters of Villiers proposals, Isle of Wight MP Bob Seely, described Nimby campaigners as “local patriots” sticking up for their areas. He said “We want to protect communities and, at the same time, we recognise that we need to build, but we want a system that is community-centred, environment-centred—environmentally friendly—and regeneration-centred.”

Countryside charity the CPRE said it backed the amendments tabled by Villiers and Bob Seely. CPRE acting policy director Sarah MCMonagle tweeted: “Given Monday’s debate has been pulled by @luhc, we hope this signals @michaelgove & @lucyfrazermp’s willingness to work more constructively with backbenchers & stakeholders on improving the Bill”.

Last month a study by Lichfields estimated that cancelling housing targets could result in housing delivery dropping by 35% to as little as 140,000 homes per year.

Planning barrister Zack Simons, of Landmark Chambers, said in a blog today that “Taken together, […] and this is not hyperbole, the rebels’ package of amendments would plunge the planning system into chaos the likes of which none of us have seen.”