Rishi Sunak pulled a vote on the UK government’s housebuilding plans last night as dozens of Conservative MPs threatened the first major rebellion of his premiership.
Some 47 Tory MPs signed an amendment to the Levelling-Up and Regeneration Bill that would have banned the imposition on local councils of mandatory housebuilding targets.
The bill, introduced by Michael Gove, will still be debated in the Commons later today, but a vote, due to take place next Monday, has been pulled.
The climbdown puts the government’s plans to build 300,000 new homes annually by the mid-2020s in jeopardy and comes after lead rebel Theresa Villiers, the former Northern Ireland Secretary, said the plans would encourage “development which damages the environment and quality of life”.
Villiers said: “This is a significant victory for the backbenches. It shows that ministers know that they need to listen to us and they need more time to come up with a solution.
“We cannot go on as we are with these top-down excessive targets. We must have change. The 50 names on NC21 showed the strength of feeling there is on this issue.”
And Sir Iain Duncan-Smith, former Tory leader, added: “These top-down targets have to go, and if the government does not back down we will vote for this amendment.”
Labour had already said it would not be supporting the rebel amendment – meaning there was no chance of the government being defeated. However, a vote would have been a huge test of the prime minister’s authority just a month after he took office.
The amendment would have meant that housebuilding targets “may only be advisory and not mandatory” and so “accordingly such targets should not be taken into account in determining planning applications”.
It added that the national planning rulebook “must not impose an obligation on local planning authorities to ensure that sufficient housing development sites are available over five years or any other given period”.
A briefing note circulated among the rebels says that the MPs’ big concern was clauses which over-rule “local development management policies”.
“This would mean a major centralisation of planning policy, undermining the longstanding principle which gives primacy to the local development plan,” the note states. “If all these were set nationally, rather than locally, that could open the way for many dense developments which are currently prevented.”