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Pro-Development Tories Are Desperate To Convince NIMBYs New Houses Would Be "Popular" In Their Patch

(Alamy)

8 min read

A number of Conservative MPs who believe new housing should be a top priority are looking to persuade NIMBY MPs that housebuilding can be "popular" in their area, as the issue continues to bitterly divide the Tories ahead of the next election.

For the 14 years the Conservatives’ have been in power, the party has been split between those who champion the economic benefits of housebuilding and a powerful faction who regularly oppose planning reform.

The Tories’ time in Government has also coincided with record rises in house prices and a steep decline of home ownership among younger demographics. Between May 2010 and January 2023, the average house price has increased from £170,846 to £289,818, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The median house price in London has continued to outstrip the average property price across the country. A home in the capital remains the most expensive of any region in the UK, with an average price of £516,000 in October 2023. Meanwhile research from Centre for Cities, a think tank, shows Britain has a backlog of 4.3million housebuilders.

Former cabinet minister Brandon Lewis, Conservative MP for Great Yarmouth, told PoliticsHome that housebuilding was becoming a "headline issue" across the party and country.

He claimed progress has been made by convincing Tory MPs that the lack of housebuilding was an issue. The former housing minister said it was important to use the right language to persuade Tory MPs of the moral and economic case for building more homes on their patches. 

"I think even those who are against [housebuilding], from the point of view of their constituency, would also concede we need more housing in this country," he said. "The shift in the debate is that people recognise that there is an issue. The disagreement is more about where and how to fix it."

He urged Conservative MPs to ignore messages from a minority of people who objected to housebuilding in their area, and said he believed if done in the right place housebuilding can be "popular". 

Lewis also felt the majority of constituents either "don't care" about new developments or support them because they "want a home for their kids". 

"It's a truism that building is unpopular. If you take Great Yarmouth, we've had lots of building and my majority has gone up and up and up and up. It's not a problem."

Polling for the free market think tank Adam Smith Institute (ASI), commissioned by JL Partners, found more than three-quarters of the population believe there is a housing crisis. Its results suggested 53 per cent of those polled supported building more homes in their local patch. This figure fell to 25 per cent if houses were to be built on the protected Green Belt. 

But despite the UK's acute housing crisis, many Conservative MPs who are more sceptical of mass housebuilding continue to feel emboldened. A former cabinet minister told PoliticsHome they believed it felt like their side, which focused on “protecting” the Greenbelt, was winning the argument.

The senior Conservative MP claimed it was important likeminded Tories kept the pressure up on the Government to give local authorities more control of how many homes were built in their constituencies.

“We need to make sure we build the right homes in the right places,” they said.

“In an ideal world, we would want the advisory target [abolished] and will be looking at that. We had a major win more than a year ago when we defeated the Government on its mandatory housing targets.”

But one senior pro-development MP was dismissive of the claim that NIMBY MPs held most of the power in the Tory Party. "That's bullshit," they said. "For the Conservative Party to move forward, we have got to look past NIMBYs and YIMBYs. Housing is politics, and the solution is down the middle."

In 2022 Michael Gove, the Levelling-up Secretary, put forward legislation to change England’s planning system, which included mandatory housebuilding targets of 300,000 homes per year.

This attracted opposition from more than 50 Tory MPs – including former cabinet ministers Damian Green, Priti Patel and Liam Fox – and forced Gove to drop these proposals. The Levelling-up Secretary replaced mandatory targets with advisory ones.

PoliticsHome understands it is unlikely the Government will attempt to resurrect mandatory housebuilding targets with a general election expected to happen within the next year.

Government could be prepared to announce new plans on building even more homes in cities such as housebuilding and there are "murmurings" in Government about New Towns. This follows Gove's promise to increase the size of Cambridge and build another 150,000 homes. 

One report which continues to do the rounds in the Tory housing WhatsApp group chats is the APPG report on Housing Market and Housing Delivery to make planning "sexy". The paper called for the relaxation of planning laws and building more homes on the Green Belt.

A popular proposal, which was taken out of the report before it was published, was to liberalise nutrient neutrality laws and build another 100,000 homes across the country. 

However, in the immediate future, Government bandwidth has been taken up by the Leasehold and Freehold Bill, which is at Committee Stage. The consultation on ground rents – which is a central part of the Bill – ended on Wednesday and is likely to dominate the housing debate in the following weeks. 

A Whitehall source told PoliticsHome individual departments are focusing more on showing what they have "delivered" instead of announcing new policies ahead of an expected general election this year. 

One former housing minister, who empathised with calls to build more homes in the capital and see house prices fall, told PoliticsHome NIMBYs had more power in the party and the country, as they believed most voters did not want to see new homes built in their area.

“It is my belief that everyone in this country is a NIMBY,” they said. The former minister claimed they could see activists who describe themselves as YIMBYs (Yes In My Backyard) becoming NIMBYs in the future if they get their foot on the property ladder. 

The Government has tried to put forward a series of proposals to increase housing supply in city centres over the last year.

Ben Hopkinson, Britain Remade’s policy researcher, told PoliticsHome he believed the Government has identified focusing on building more in densely populated cities such as Cambridge and London as opposed to building more homes in the shires. 

“Instead of talking about the sort of big planning projects, with New Towns dotted around a railway station, Gove is looking at building urban extensions to existing high growth areas,” Hopkinson said.

The government in December also published its National Planning Policy Paper (NPPF) which set out its planning policies for housebuilding.

However, another former cabinet minister on the NIMBY wing of the Tory Party told PoliticsHome they were relatively pleased with the “compromise” deal. They claimed the government was aware a group of Conservative MPs would be quick to block any proposal which would water down the country’s planning laws.

“They know if they come back with Robert Jenrick’s reforms, we will be there to block it,” they said, referring to the former housing minister’s proposals to move Britain’s planning system to a zonal model.

Planning zones give guidance and restrictions on the types of homes and projects that can be built in certain areas. However, many Conservative NIMBY MPs were concerned this would lead to too much housebuilding in their constituencies at the time.

A number of Conservatives on the pro-housing wing of the party have become frustrated with their own colleagues and their lack of ambition to build more homes.

One senior Conservative MP told PoliticsHome many MPs were very “good at talking” about wanting more homes until housebuilding was in a “community near them or in their constituency”.

“We need to build some bloody houses. If people want to retire and live in Tenby [for example], build loads and loads of houses in Tenby. Build another 10,000 or 20,000,” they said.

Another pro-housing Conservative said they would look to pressure the Government into changing its planning system again. “Zonal planning was a very good policy. I backed [former housing secretary] Jenrick to the hilt on it at the time. And I will continue to press for it,” they told PoliticsHome.

Pro-housing Tories may take some solace in the fact that a handful of Conservative MPs, who have written and spoken publicly about the need to increase housebuilding, are now on the Government payroll.

Richard Holden, the Conservative Party’s Chairman, praised the Government’s plan to overhaul the planning system when he was on the backbenches in 2020. Other similar pro-housing appointments include Bim Afolami, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, and Robert Courts, the solicitor general and the newest member of the Government. 

Despite this, the majority of the policy wins have been won by the Tories’ well organised NIMBY faction. And at the same time the number of affordable homes built in the UK continues to fall, according to the National House Building Council.

If the Conservatives lose the next election, which is widely anticipated, the party is likely to undergo some soul searching. It will find itself at a crossroads on housing, and whatever policy direction it takes, it will find itself alienating voters. 

The Party of homeownership will have to decide whether it remains faithful to its base which does not want any more development in their backyards, or whether it will begin to persuade younger voters locked out of the property market that it will build more homes for them. 

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