Michael Gove drops mandatory housebuilding targets in face of Tory rebellion

If the ground rules have changed isn’t it time to pause the Local Plan and re-assess the need? – Owl

Mandatory housebuilding targets have been scrapped by Michael Gove in the face of a Tory backbench rebellion, The Telegraph can disclose.

By Daniel Martin, Deputy Political Editor and Christopher Hope, Associate Editor (Politics) www.telegraph.co.uk

He has agreed to change his landmark Levelling-Up and Regeneration Bill to make clear that centrally-dictated targets are “advisory”.

The new rules will mean that town halls will be allowed to build fewer homes than Whitehall believes are needed if they can show that hitting the targets would significantly change the character of an area.

The Levelling-Up Secretary has also agreed to water down the powers of the Planning Inspectorate, making it harder for them to reject local development plans which have been agreed with the community.  

And he has pledged to make it clear that more homes will be built in urban areas and in the North as part of the Government’s vision to level up the country.

In another change, town halls will be allowed to introduce registration schemes for short-term holiday lets and there will be a consultation on allowing them to require a change of use planning application if there is a switch from residential to short-term ‘Airbnb-type’ use.

Campaigners say that the problem in places like Devon and Cornwall is that many people are turning homes into Airbnbs, which reduces the number of affordable houses available and in turn increases the pressure to build more.

60 Tory MPs called for target to be scrapped

The climb-down came after 60 Conservative MPs signed an amendment laid by Theresa Villiers and Bob Seely calling on the Government to scrap its target that 300,000 homes should be built each year.

Facing the threat of a huge loss of authority for Rishi Sunak, the Government last month pulled key votes on the Levelling-Up and Regeneration Bill.

Following talks with the rebels, Mr Gove has now agreed to make a series of changes to ensure the Bill can proceed.

The rebels say the changes will rebalance the planning system to give local communities a greater say in what is built in their neighbourhoods.

They include a crackdown on developers keeping land unused even though it has been granted planning permission – a trick which keeps prices high and pressures councils to find even more land to build on.

There will also be a series of government reviews, including one on making it easier to build on brownfield land.

‘These reforms will rebalance the planning system’

Ms Villiers, a former environment secretary, said: “These reforms will rebalance the planning system and give local communities a greater say over what is built in their neighbourhood.

“The Government has listened and will amend planning rules so that councils which are subject to genuine constraints will be permitted to reduce their target. This will apply if meeting the centrally determined target would significantly change the character of an area, for example from suburban to high-rise urban.

“The compromise we have secured shows that positive change can be achieved through backbench scrutiny of legislation.”

Mr Seely said: “We know how many communities have been battling against bad development. Supported by well over 100 Tory MPs, we have helped ministers shape a housing and planning agenda which is more conservative than the one we currently have.

“Targets will be advisory, not mandatory. The power of planning inspectors is weakened. Rules which have helped developers force councils to release land will be weakened.

“The new language we’ve agreed will work with communities, speaking to the character of areas and celebrating the beauty of good design. It understands the need for farmland, will significantly emphasise brownfield over greenfield development, and will help deliver homes for young people.”

Downgraded targets

Under the changes, local housebuilding targets will be downgraded – they will only be “advisory”. They become a “starting point, a guide that is not mandatory”.

Town halls will be allowed to depart from the central determination of local housing need if there are genuine constraints on delivering it. 

It means, for example, that if the centrally-determined target would involve building at a density that would lead to significant loss of rural or suburban character, the council can set a lower number.

The reforms will cut the powers of planning inspectors as part of a “rebalancing of the relationship between local councils and the Planning Inspectorate”.

Up to now, the Planning Inspectorate has in almost all cases refused to accept that exceptional circumstances are present and indicated that the full target must be met. Their power to do this will be curbed.

Inspectors will be required to take a more “reasonable” and “pragmatic” approach to “plans that take account of the concerns of the local community”.

Mr Gove has agreed there should be more housing in urban areas and the Midlands and North. Cities will not be able to palm housing off into neighbouring suburban and rural councils.

New government review

There will be a new government review on making it easier to build on brownfield land. Councils could be able to charge higher levies on greenfield sites to encourage developers not to use them.

Mr Gove promised a third review on allowing councils to refuse planning permission to developers who have in the past refused to build promptly on land for which they have planning permission.

There could also be a character test in planning to ensure that so-called “spiv” developers can be turned down.

And there could be a new beauty test for new developments, to prevent pretty areas being spoiled by new housing.

When it comes to individual planning applications, new design codes will give councils a greater say over them. They will give councils stronger powers to specify the type of housing they want, and put in place standards on matters such as scale, height, bulk and character.

Councils which have delivered well in past years can take this into account in the number they propose for the future in their plans. This will mitigate the problem whereby councils delivering many homes get hit by even higher targets.

Mr Gove has agreed that a consultation on changes to the National Planning Policy Framework will be published by Christmas.