An embarrassing climbdown to Tory rebels that will allow local councils to escape housebuilding targets is “not a U-turn”, a government minister has insisted.
Nick Gibb also claimed the government is still “committed” to a flagship pledge to build 300,000 new homes a year – even though the figure will now be “advisory’.
“You use the phrase U-turn, I use the phrase parliamentary democracy. This is the normal process,” the schools minister said, about a second looming U-turn to lift the onshore wind ban.
Mr Gibb fought back after Michael Gove, the levelling up secretary, was forced to cave in to at least 60 Conservative MPs who were threatening to inflict a Commons defeat.
It means local authorities will be allowed to build fewer homes if they can show that meeting centrally imposed targets would damage the character of their area.
The loophole is seen as the death knell for the promise to build 300,000 homes a year, to the fury of other Tories who believe voters will punish their party at the next general election.
Lisa Nandy, Labour’s shadow housing secretary, attacked an “unconscionable” U-turn, saying: “We offered Labour votes to defeat the rebels, but Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove seem to have chosen party before country.”
But Mr Gibb denied the 300,000 target is dead, telling Sky News: “We are committed to that, we want young people, and not so young people, to be able to get on the housing ladder.
“It’s not a U-turn. You need to work with parliamentarians – they represent people in their communities. We want there to be community consent to building more houses.”
On Monday, in a letter to Tory MPs, Mr Gove admitted centrally determined housebuilding targets would now only be a “starting point”>
Councils would be able to propose building fewer homes if they faced “genuine constraints” or would have to build at a density that would “significantly change the character” of their area.
Mr Gove had sought to head off the U-turn, on the Levelling-Up and Regeneration Bill, by making it harder for property owners in holiday hotspots to turn their homes into short-term lets.
He also announced that the Competition and Markets Authority would investigate the housebuilding market in a move to reduce the power of big developers.
A further change could see councils given powers to impose financial penalties on developers who fail to build on land for which they have planning permission.
Bob Seely, one of the rebel MPs, said: “We have helped ministers shape a housing and planning agenda which is more conservative than the one we currently have.”