Rishi Sunak delays critical vote on planning reforms

Rishi Sunak delays critical vote on planning reforms

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has delayed a critical vote on planning reform in a bid to quell a growing rebellion by Tory ‘blue wall’ MPs who are worried about the prospect of losing their seats to the Liberal Democrats in the of the next general elections.

The liberalization of planning regulations is one of the most controversial issues dividing the Conservative Party. MPs in the more prosperous southern seats – the so-called Blue Wall – are staunchly opposed to easing restrictions, while those in the ‘red wall’ of Labour’s former pro-Brexit heartland want to ease construction.

Sunak has pushed back votes on the Leveling and Regeneration Bill, which contains proposals to give local communities more say in planning decisions, after 47 MPs signed an amendment that would water down the aims of local councils to build additional houses.

The amendment, proposed by former environment secretary Theresa Villiers, would instead make the housing targets advisory only.

The proposed change to the legislation, overseen by Secretary Michael Gove, was due to be voted on in the House of Commons in the coming days. But government insiders said it was delayed due to a “busy parliamentary schedule”.

A senior Tory official said Gove would use the extra time to hear from MPs concerned about planning reforms. “We will continue to engage constructively with our colleagues over the coming weeks to ensure that we build more of the right homes in the right places,” he said.

The Tory MPs who signed the de Villiers amendment mostly represent constituencies opposed to further housing construction. One rebel said he was “pretty adamant” about his willingness to water down the targets.

Another Tory MP who signed the amendment said: ‘There is a feeling among the rebels that they had an ally in Liz Truss [who was against arbitrary targets]but there is skepticism about Rishi.

Since becoming prime minister last month, Sunak has vowed to return to the Conservative Manifesto 2019 pledge to build 300,000 homes a year. But the party is struggling to deliver on its promise due to a series of rebellions.

An earlier attempt to reform the planning system, led by former local government secretary Robert Jenrick, was blamed for the party’s loss of Chesham and Amersham to the Liberal Democrats in a by-election in the summer 2021.

A senior Conservative Party official said the party had ‘five seats in Surrey on the party’s danger list’ to move to the Liberal Democrats in the next general election if the planning reform is passed.

But Simon Clarke, Tory MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland and former leveling secretary, said there was ‘no doubt’ the Villiers Amendment was ‘very bad’, adding it would be politically “senseless” for the party to abandon arbitrary targets.

He said: ‘I don’t think dropping all housing targets is the right answer. We must also recognize the fundamental intergenerational injustice that we will deepen and perpetuate if we destroy already too low levels of housing construction in this country. Economically and socially, it would be disastrous.

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