A minority of MPs are putting their own interests ahead of the nation's
Rishi Sunak’s Conservative government has seemingly conceded to its anti-housing fifth column. This week the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill was set to come before the House for a third reading. In response Tory backbenchers, led by the former cabinet minister Theresa Villiers, proposed an amendment seeking to end nationally directed housing targets and removing the presumption in favour of development from many planning decisions. This would, in effect, make it even easier for local lobbyists to stop development. It was NIMBYism entrenched at a legislative level.
This country desperately needs more houses. One estimate suggests there are 4.5 million households “in housing need”. For years we have failed to hit the government’s own target of building 300,000 houses per year. This lack of supply combined with rising demand has led to predictable results.
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The last few decades have seen phenomenal rises in house prices, vastly outstripping wage growth — great for homeowners, terrible for those too young or too poor to have bought a house in the early nineties or before. Now even the highest earners struggle to find suitable housing, while the overheated rental market sucks away their income. For the poorest and worst housed, it can prove fatal.
The Villiers amendment would exacerbate this. If successful, it would remove the major stick which forces councils to build. Rather than liberalising planning to allow us to develop more, it would curtail it. The Centre for Policy Studies estimates it would cut building by between 20 and 40%. That would deepen the housing shortage, condemning millions to more years of housing misery. This itself constrains economic growth yet further.
The Government looks set to pull the vote. This is parliamentary management to avoid a defeat and seek some compromise with the rebels. Such a compromise will undoubtedly favour rich homeowners in the leafy shires, at the expense of younger voters and the economy. It is a capitulation to the worst parochialism of the Conservative Party.
The 56 MPs who back the amendment seem not to worry about this — only for the safety of their seat and the comfort of their ageing voter base. They claim to want to introduce nuance to the planning system, but this just means more local vetoes. They have no answer to the pressing problem of the housing shortage. Instead only deflections are offered: opposing even the brownfield development they champion in theory as soon as it’s in their backyard. They will shore up their vote at the expense of the country and their party’s future. Owning a home is one of the biggest factors in how someone votes, and if the party excludes the young, even the affluent young, from this it will wither.
The Tory Party achieved its biggest victories off the back of housing, from the building boom of Macmillan to Thatcher’s right-to-buy. Now it cannot even make the case for planning liberalisation to its own backbenches. If the party continues to be cowed by those who want to hinder building, it will deserve its elimination. Sunak might have avoided a parliamentary showdown with the militant NIMBYs, but the party and the country cannot avoid one with reality. The Tory Party needs to build more houses. Conceding on this means consigning itself to being a party of propertied special-interest, not popular success.