Levelling up secretary’s ‘planning reset’ could reopen Tory splits over housebuilding

Exclusive: Simon Clarke hopes to win over blue wall Tories by ending new-home targets as well as green and affordability rules

Simon Clarke, the levelling up secretary, threatens to reignite the feud over housebuilding within the Conservative party with a significant “planning reset” that could water down environmental protections and affordable home requirements across England.

The latest in Liz Truss’s string of supply side reforms – nicknamed “Operation Rolling Thunder” in Whitehall – is slated to be launched by Clarke within weeks, and is expected to see him argue for a flurry of housing development as part of the government’s “dash for growth”.

He will probably claim that creating new houses would be better to grow the British economy than reshuffling assets between older and younger generations, and wants to launch a charm offensive on voters who do not want new developments in their area – which would see him “fighting to turn nimbys into yimbys”.

Clarke has said building more houses should not mean compromising on quality, beauty or the environment. But he has drawn up plans, seen by the Guardian, to reduce barriers for developers in England.

The proposed measures include a bonfire of red tape pertaining to aspects of housing development such as EU rules, affordable housing, nutrient pollution and biodiversity improvements.

Government sources also said the target of building 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s had quietly been abandoned. They said it was unlikely to be officially abolished, as it had been a 2019 manifesto pledge, even though Truss hit out over the summer at “Soviet-style targets”.

But blue wall Tory MPs in the south-east of England are pressing for a firm commitment that the nationally imposed housing target will be dropped, and are wary of further planning reforms that would lead to a significant increase in development.

They are seeking to ensure local authorities maintain a “master veto” over developments before pledging their support to Clarke’s plan. This would keep any drastic new developments to areas that want them – but potentially limit the plans to turbocharge housing numbers.

One former minister said: “If we’re really going to fix the housing crisis, then you need something that’s profoundly radical. The problem is Liz probably doesn’t have a majority in parliament – so maybe this is the best they could do.”

Clarke is understood to have held meetings with several MPs who were staunch rebels on the planning reforms attempted by Johnson’s government, and is wary of again sparking a fierce backlash from backbenchers – particularly after a bitterly divisive Tory party conference.

Labour said the government must “think again” if their big idea was to “slash and burn regulations in a mythical search for growth”.

Lisa Nandy, the shadow levelling-up secretary, said: “To get growth we need to invest to create good, well-paid jobs, get businesses thriving, and get money back in people’s pockets. The answer is not less affordable housing, fewer environmental protections, more fracking, new warehouses and tax giveaways for the largest corporations.

“We have a Tory economic crisis, made in Downing Street, being paid for by working people. The government should be reversing its disastrous budget, not doubling down on an approach that has crashed the economy.”

In his plans, Clarke is pushing for developers in England to be given “greater flexibility on affordable housing requirements”, and wants to ease requirements for builders to leave land in a better state for the environment than beforehand, known as “biodiversity net gain”.

Housing delays caused by nutrient pollution, when development contaminates nearby earth and surrounding bodies of water, are also to be reduced.

Clarke wants to scrap what he described as the “perverse outcomes of historic EU regulations and rulings that are currently blocking 100,000 homes in this country”. The aim is for these laws to be scrapped in the spring of 2023, well before all retained EU law falls off the statute book automatically by the end of next December.

Quangos viewed as having unnecessary interference in the planning system would also be shut out of the process, with some – such as Active Travel England, which is the agency responsible for promoting walking and cycling – told they no longer have a legal right to be consulted on planning applications. And Clarke wants to allow more people to convert agricultural and commercial properties into homes.

While his proposals have been submitted to No 10, Truss’s team have not given their signoff and other departments are yet to offer their response.

Amid concerns among some Conservative MPs that Boris Johnson’s levelling up agenda is dead, Clarke is also expected to recommit to the mission in a speech earmarked for 19 October.

A source said No 10 had pushed for Clarke’s announcement to be focused on planning, but the Teesside MP wanted to widen it to include more aspects of levelling up, growth and opportunity.

Truss’s team initially wanted eight big supply-side reform announcements across October, but given the torrent of criticism she has faced from many in her own party, the number could be slimmed down as Downing Street seeks to focus on “quality, not quantity”.

Last year, there were 216,490 new homes built in England. The figure was down by 11% compared with the previous year.

A government spokesperson said: “The government is committed to exploring policies that build the homes people need, deliver new jobs, support economic development and boost local economies.”


Aubrey Allegretti

The GuardianTramp

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