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Home builders have said the UK government’s latest plan to increase the number of new homes in England is unlikely to help ministers reach the goal of their homes manifesto.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Settlement Minister Michael Gove insisted on Monday that the Conservative administration would make good on its 2019 election pledge to “build at least 1 million more homes” before the next vote, expected in 2024.
However, critics have questioned the government’s ability to deliver a separate pledge to build 300,000 new homes a year by mid-2020, which Gove insists he has “absolutely” stood by, despite telling Tory MPs last year that it was an “advisory” rather than mandatory target.
In a speech in London, Gove unveiled new proposals to focus on building homes in urban areas and avoid “pouring concrete over the countryside”.
Actions included making it easier to convert empty shops, takeaways, barns, and warehouses into housing, moves to promote regeneration of abandoned field sites, and new freedoms to build extensions and convert lofts in existing homes.
Gove also announced £24m of funding and the creation of a ‘super-band’ of planners and experts to remove delays and unlock major housing projects, starting in Cambridge.
On Tuesday, the government is set to announce proposals to speed up delivery of major infrastructure projects including offshore wind, transmission lines, waste facilities and nuclear power plants.
It will include plans to “streamline and streamline” approval processes, create a new rapid planning pathway for critical projects, and inject more resources into the Planning Inspection Department.
The new focus is on building homes in city centres, where the government insists demand is higher and growth is constrained, following an aggressive campaign by Tory MPs in rural and suburban seats to block development on greenbelt land.
Gove’s proposals received a mixed response from industry and the social housing sector, and sparked outrage from the local Cambridgeshire MP.
Peter Truscott, chief executive of FTSE 250 homebuilder Crest Nicholson, said the measures would “make no material difference” to the government delivering on its commitments in its statement on new homes.
Truscott said the government’s announcement was also unlikely to help meet demand for homes in south-east England, where the situation is most severe, with abandoned field sites mainly in the north and midlands.
Steve Turner, executive director of the Home Builders Association, also warned that the measures “do not address those major barriers” to building that arise from red tape in the planning system, and said that “housing supply could be cut in half” without additional government intervention.
Meanwhile, Alistair Watson, planning partner at Taylor Wessing, has insisted that England will “need more homes outside the cities”, describing several recent government measures as “rehashes” of previous declarations.
Polly Nate, chief executive of housing charity Shelter, aired concerns that converting shops into homes threatened to create “poor quality” and “unsafe” housing. She said Goff’s proposals were “a real mixed bag,” adding, “We need proper investment to build much-needed homes that are really affordable, not a more piecemeal fix.”
A group of development figures including homebuilder Barratt Homes, the National Housing Federation and Pocket Living wrote to Gove on Monday, calling for “urgent action” to “support both the small and medium business and affordable housing sectors.”
The group urged the government to make changes to the planning system to allow small, underutilized field sites to be repurposed into affordable housing and open up “up to 1.6 million homes across the country”.
Nevertheless, Goff’s actions were welcomed in some quarters. Melanie Leech, chief executive of the British Property Confederation, called it an “ambitious agenda” and threw her support behind a focus on reviving urban centres.
Officials stressed that the proposals were part of a long-term reform package to boost housing, and that the government was on track to create one million “net additional homes” by the end of this parliament. The scale includes homes constructed from converted buildings as well as new construction.
Gove’s plan to overturn the development ban in Cambridge has sparked a backlash from Anthony Browne, the Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire, who has vowed to fight the “bullshit” initiative to “force the building of mass housing” on the university city.
Another East of England Tory MP, who asked not to be named, also raised the alarm about Cambridge’s infrastructure being overburdened and noted that the city was already growing at a rapid pace.