Rishi Sunak has been branded weak by Labour after caving in to rebel backbenchers over house-building targets in a move described as a “triumph for Nimby-ism”.
Campaigners fear that housing secretary Michael Gove’s decision to scrap mandatory targets for local councils in rural and suburban areas puts at risk the government’s promise to build 300,000 new homes a year.
Mr Gove’s climbdown comes after behind-the-scenes talks with leaders of more than 100 Tory MPs threatening to vote against his flagship Levelling-Up and Regeneration Bill, leaving the prime minister dependent on Labour votes to get the legislation through parliament.
Under an agreement with rebels, centrally-set targets will be made “advisory”, allowing councils to set lower figures if proposed developments would damage the rural or low-rise suburban nature of their areas. The change takes away much of the power of planning inspectors to force through developments designed to ease housing shortages.
Rebel leader and former cabinet minister Theresa Villiers said the move would “rebalance the planning system and give local communities a greater say over what is built in their neighbourhood”.
But Ms Nandy said the climbdown was “unconscionable in the middle of a housing crisis”.
“We offered Labour votes to defeat the rebels, but Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove seem to have chosen party before country,” said Ms Nandy.
“This is so weak. The prime minister and cabinet are in office but not in power.”
Kristian Niemietz, of the free-market Institute of Economic Affairs thinktank, described it as “another triumph of Nimby-ism”.
He said: “Britain is now officially a ‘Nimby-ocracy’, run in the interest of those who were lucky enough to get on the housing ladder in time, and who have since been busy pulling up that ladder.”
Under Mr Gove’s changes, new guidance will make clear that local authorities do not have to consider Green Belt land when looking for home-building opportunities. Priority will be given to “brownfield” sites which have previously been developed.
Ministers will also consider new financial penalties for failing to deliver housing in locations where planning permission has been granted, as well as new powers for councils to refuse further approvals to companies guilty of “land-banking”.
And a registration scheme will be set up for empty properties and second homes, which will be subject to a council tax premium of up to 100 per cent under the terms of the bill.
The government will also consult on whether planning permission should be required for new short-term lets, especially in tourist hotspots.
Mr Gove said: “If we are to deliver the new homes this country needs, new development must have the support of local communities.
“That requires people to know it will be beautiful, accompanied by the right infrastructure, approved democratically, that it will enhance the environment and create proper neighbourhoods.
“These principles have always been key to our reforms and we are now going further by strengthening our commitment to build the right homes in the right places and put local people at the heart of decision-making.”
More than 60 Tory MPs signed an amendment tabled by Ms Villiers and Isle of Wight MP Bob Seely, which would have freed councils from mandatory targets.
But Ms Villiers told The Independent that at least 40 more had expressed concern, including some ministers in Mr Sunak’s administration.
“We had some allies lobbying within government, as well as more than 60 on the backbenches who signed our amendment,” she said.
Mr Seely said: “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.”