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Government Accused Of Not Engaging With Tory MPs On Housebuilding

(Alamy)

5 min read

A number of Conservative MPs have complained that there has been a lack of "engagement" with backbenchers over its housebuilding strategy, despite many across the party holding strong views on the topic.

Last month housing secretary Michael Gove announced “radical action to unlock the supply of new homes” and promised to meet the Government’s commitment to deliver one million new houses over the course of this Parliament, as well as prioritising building more properties in big cities such as London and focus on a new urban hub in Cambridge. The new proposals include a series of reforms to build more homes in East and West London and densify its existing housing stock. The capital is a “low density city” compared to major cities such as New York and Paris, according to research from the London School of Economics.

But there is now a growing discontent in the party that the government is not sufficiently engaging with its MPs on development of housing policy, and that messaging between ministers and the backbenches has been confused. A former cabinet minister told PoliticsHome the “uncertainty and the lack of really clear messages” have “caused a lot of frustration” within the ranks.

One former cabinet minister said they believed the government had also been inconsistent in its approach to housebuilding in recent years. They claimed that although they are technically committed to building 300,000 homes a year, it has put out campaign materials ahead of last month's by-elections “saying we won’t build any houses, effectively”.

They felt that previous Conservative governments had been much clearer in communicating its own housing strategy with backbenchers than Rishi Sunak's administration, which had previously fended off serious rebellions over housing.

“We used to do a lot of engagement work with colleagues around sort of taking them through the methodology of what we need to do,” the former cabinet minister explained, but complained that ministers now press ahead with policy and are “surprised" when MPs don't like it. 

Last year, Sunak faced a significant rebellion on planning reform in which almost 50 Tory MPs forced the Government to back down over mandatory housing targets. Sunak was forced to drop compulsory housebuilding targets from the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill after Chipping Barnet MP Theresa Villiers gained significant support for an amendment that sought to scrap them. Senior Conservatives who backed the Villiers amendment included Damian Green, Priti Patel and Esther McVey. As a concession the Prime Minister replaced mandatory targets with advisory ones. 

Another ex-cabinet minister said the relationship between government and MPs outside of cities would need to be “tightened up” if similar rebellions were to be avoided in future.

“It is about the government making sure it doesn’t fight on more than one front," they said. 

"It is politically possible to focus building in the cities, so long as that means the pressure for housing elsewhere is scrapped, because MPs outside of the cities will back it.”

Michael Gove housing
Housing Secretary Michael Gove promised "radical action to unlock the supply of new homes" last week

One senior Conservative was also frustrated over what they perceived as lack of ambition from government to build more homes – despite Gove’s pledge to build a million more homes. They claimed it was “sad” the Conservative Party had not been “more adventurous” on delivering its “own manifesto” commitments, and that Government had been “contradicting” itself.

“All the policies that have emanated through, and the legislation that came out through Michael [Gove’s] department do not back up delivering housing… There’s a factual thing there, they’re not doing it,” the MP said. 

Over the last two decades housing has become increasingly unaffordable, with the problem even more acute in London, according to the Office for National Statistics. The average house price in the UK has increased from £151,633 in January 2005 to £285,785 in May 2023.

ONS data also showed median house prices were more expensive in London than any other region in the UK. The average property in England’s capital is valued at £526,000. Meanwhile the number of housing projects given planning permission in late 2022 fell below 3,000 for the first time since 2006, according to the National Building Federation.

Gove’s recent announcement looked to address the lack of affordable homes in London. Former justice secretary Robert Buckland, MP for South Swindon, praised Gove’s proposals, and said the Conservatives were at their best when they were “ambitious about housing”. However, he claimed the announcement itself was not “going to be enough to deal with the housing challenge”.

“What Michael Gove said in his speech last week was very good and he’s right to talk about how we can revitalise the centre of towns. In my constituency, in Swindon, they’re doing a lot of that with office conversions, which I think is good," Buckland said. 

“But that in and of itself isn’t going to be enough to deal with the housing challenge. The Prime Minister gets it, his stuff in London has been very good but we need a housing target.

“We are at our best when we are ambitious about housing and about our aspirations for the people who want housing.”

A former housing adviser told PoliticsHome Gove’s plan had moved the party on from where it was two years ago, when the Conservatives were beset by housing rebellions. They had sympathy with Gove, noting that major housing reform was “politically extremely difficult”.

“It’s a very tricky issue for the Government. Gove is pretty good at engaging with backbenchers on this stuff when you consider where he has come from," they said. "He’s got to get the Levelling-up Bill through Parliament, but that was not going to happen before because of Tory backbenchers.”

At the next election the Conservatives will be at a crossroads. The party, which has prided itself in promoting homeownership, may have to decide whether it wants to attract younger voters without property, or stick to its loyal base of homeowners who bought in a different economic climate, and aren't keen on more building. 

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