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Housebuilders have said the UK government’s latest plan to boost the number of new homes in England is unlikely to help ministers reach their manifesto targets on homes.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Leveling-up Secretary Michael Gove insisted on Monday that the Conservative administration would fulfill its 2019 election promise to “build at least a million more homes” before the next vote, expected in 2024.
However, critics doubted the government’s ability to achieve a separate manifesto pledge to build 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s, which Gove insisted he stood by “absolutely”, telling Tory MPs last year it was an “advisory” rather than a mandatory target.
In a speech in London, Gove unveiled fresh proposals to focus on housebuilding in urban areas and avoid “concreting on the countryside”.
The measures include making it easier to convert shops, takeaways, barns and empty warehouses into housing, encouraging the regeneration of disused brownfield sites and new freedoms to build extensions and convert lofts to existing homes.
Gove also announced £24mn of funding and the creation of a “super-squad” of planners and experts, starting in Cambridge, to tackle delays and unblock major housing developments.
And on Tuesday, the government is set to unveil proposals to speed up the delivery of key infrastructure projects including offshore wind, transport links, waste facilities and nuclear power stations.
It will include plans to “streamline and simplify” consent processes, create a new planning fast-track for important projects and pour more resources into the planning inspectorate.
The new emphasis on building homes in city centres, where the government insists demand is highest and growth is constrained, follows a fierce 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 local Cambridgeshire MPs.
Peter Truscott, chief executive of FTSE 250 housebuilding company Crest Nicholson, said the measures “will not make a significant difference” to meeting the Government’s manifesto commitments on new homes.
Truscott said the government’s announcement was unlikely to help meet demand for homes in the south-east of England, where it is most acute, as derelict brownfield sites are mainly found in the north and midlands.
Steve Turner, executive director of the Home Builders Federation, also warned that measures to build “do not address the major obstacles” arising from red tape in the planning system and said that “housing supply could be halved” without further government intervention.
Meanwhile, Alastair Watson, Taylor Wessing planning partner, insisted that England “will need more homes outside the cities”, describing many of the government’s latest moves as a “rehash” of previous announcements.
Concerns that the converted homes risked creating “poor quality” and “unsafe” dwellings were raised by Polly Neat, chief executive of housing charity Shelter. She said Gove’s proposals were “a real mixed bag”, adding: “We need the right investment to build the genuinely affordable homes we so desperately need, not more small fixes.”
A group of development industry figures including housebuilder Barrett Homes, the National Housing Federation and Pocket Living wrote to Gove on Monday calling for “urgent action” to “support both the SME and affordable housing sectors”.
The group urged the government to change the planning system so that small underutilized brownfield sites can be regenerated into affordable housing and unlock “up to 1.6 million homes across the country”.
However, Gove’s move was welcomed in some quarters. Melanie Leach, chief executive of the British Property Federation, described it as an “ambitious agenda” and backed the focus on regenerating urban centres.
Officials stressed that the proposals are part of a long-running package of reforms to boost housing and that the government is on track to build 1 million “net additional dwellings” by the end of this parliament. The metric includes homes built from converted buildings as well as new construction.
Gove’s plans to unblock development in Cambridge prompted a backlash from South Cambridgeshire Tory MP Anthony Browne, who vowed to fight the “nonsense” initiative to impose “mass housebuilding” on the university city.
Another Conservative MP in the east of England, who asked not to be named, also sounded a warning about an overburden on Cambridge’s infrastructure, pointing out that the city was already growing at a rapid pace.