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Housebuilders have said that the UK government’s latest plan to boost the number of new dwellings in England is unlikely to help ministers reach their manifesto target on homes.
Prime minister Rishi Sunak and levelling-up secretary Michael Gove on Monday insisted that the Conservative administration would meet its 2019 election pledge to “build at least a million more homes” before the next vote, expected in 2024.
However, critics cast doubt on 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 “completely”, despite last year telling Tory MPs that it was an “advisory” rather than mandatory target.
In a speech in London, Gove unveiled fresh proposals to focus housebuilding in urban areas and to avoid “concreting over the countryside”.
The measures included making it easier to convert shops, takeaways, barns and empty warehouses into housing, moves to bolster the regeneration of disused brownfield sites, and new freedoms to build extensions and convert lofts at existing homes.
Gove also announced £24mn in funding and the creation of a “super-squad” of planners and experts to clear delays and unblock major housing developments, starting with Cambridge.
The new emphasis on constructing homes in city centres, where the government insists that demand is highest and growth has been constrained, followed 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 fury from a local Cambridgeshire MP.
Peter Truscott, chief executive of FTSE 250 housebuilding company Crest Nicholson, said the measures were “not going to make a substantial difference” to the government meeting its manifesto commitments on new homes.
Truscott said the government’s announcement was also 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 the Midlands.
Steve Turner, executive director of the Home Builders Federation, also warned that the measures “do not tackle those major barriers” to construction that arise from red tape in the planning system and said that “housing supply could halve” without further government interventions.
Meanwhile, Alistair Watson, Taylor Wessing planning partner, insisted that England would “need more homes beyond cities”, describing many of the government’s latest measures as a “rehash” of previous announcements.
Concerns that converting shops into homes risked creating “poor quality” and “unsafe” dwellings were aired by Polly Neate, chief executive of the housing charity Shelter. She said Gove’s proposals were “a real mixed bag”, adding: “We need proper investment to build much-needed genuinely affordable homes, not more piecemeal reform.”
A group of development industry figures including housebuilder Barratt 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 make changes to the planning system to allow small underutilised brownfield sites to be repurposed into affordable housing and unlock “up to 1.6mn homes across the country”.
Gove’s measures were welcomed in some quarters, however. Melanie Leech, chief executive of the British Property Federation, described it as an “ambitious agenda” and threw her support behind the focus on reviving urban centres.
Officials stressed that the proposals were part of a longstanding package of reforms to boost housing, and that the government was on track to create 1mn “net additional dwellings” by the end of this parliament. The metric includes homes created from converted buildings as well as new constructions.
Gove’s plan to unblock development in Cambridge sparked a backlash from Anthony Browne, Tory MP for South Cambridgeshire, who vowed to battle 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 raised alarm about overburdening Cambridge’s infrastructure and pointed out that the city was already growing at a fast pace.