Sajid Javid is facing opposition to reforms to the planning system from MPs, including some senior ministers, because of fears there will be a “huge backlash in Middle England”.
The communities secretary will publish a housing white paper later this month to try to accelerate homebuilding figures despite misgivings from Theresa May about a potential rebellion by Tory MPs over the issue.
Despite positive housebuilding data, Mr Javid has warned that current levels of construction are “nowhere near good enough” after the failure of successive governments to take action. “I’m not talking about small tweaks, building 1,000 homes here or there,” he said recently. “I’m talking about major, long-lasting reform.”
The most contentious issue is a plan to force councils to increase the number of homes in the local plans that they are required to produce.
The prime minister still remembers, according to people familiar with the debate, the reaction from the shires when the coalition sought to overhaul the planning system five years ago through changes to the national planning policy framework (NPPF).
“You have to remember that Theresa May is MP for quite a leafy home counties seat where people are probably not very gung-ho about new homes being built,” said one official, while a senior Tory MP said: “It’s not just May who has issues with this, other senior ministers are very concerned. They just can’t speak out because they are ministers.”
Mr Javid has the backing of Greg Clark, business secretary, who as a junior minister led the reforms to the NPPF. Both ministers believe that tackling house prices is a crucial plank of the government’s attempts to help “just about managing” voters.
But Shaun Spiers, chief executive of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said that it would be “toxic” to force councils to increase their targets when local authorities are already struggling to meet existing goals.
“If this happens there will be a huge backlash in Middle England. People will not have faith in the planning system,” he said. “We will return to a situation where not enough homes are getting built but we still have lots of planning battles.”
Andrew Mitchell, the party’s former chief whip, recently threatened to use “all legal means” to block the government’s decision to let more than 6,000 homes be built on greenbelt land in his seat of Sutton Coldfield in the West Midlands.
The development was approved despite a Conservative manifesto pledge to protect the greenbelt. Mr Mitchell has spoken of “anger and disappointment” in his constituency over the issue.
He argued that other MPs are likely to see Mr Javid’s white paper through the prism of that decision: “The Sutton Coldfield decision is likely to remove the benefit of the doubt from the government over greenbelt issues,” he said.
The NPPF obliged councils to draw up growth-focused local plans, including an assessment of housing need and evidence that they have five years’ worth of development land available. Authorities that fail to produce these targets face an appeal process which favours developers.
Local people are up in arms. They are not getting any infrastructure or any kind of gain from these developments and they see themselves as besieged by builders.
Ministers have also considered “punishing” such councils by excluding them from funding sources such as the New Homes Bonus or the recently announced Housing Infrastructure Fund.
One person present at a meeting between Gavin Barwell, the housing minister, and local councils said the minister had appealed to Conservative local authorities to support increased local targets for new housebuilding.
“There haven’t been any incentives for local authorities to support this . . . When you try to make the small local planning system bear this enormous obligation on housing, it’s like putting 20,000 volts through a small hamster,” he said.
Martin Tett, housing spokesman for the Local Government Association and Conservative leader of Buckinghamshire County Council, said: “If you get into a situation with central government effectively imposing top-down targets, you are back to a situation where local communities will really resent these housing numbers.”
He cited the local example of the Vale of Aylesbury, which has twice had its local plans rejected by the Planning Inspectorate and hence has no current plan in place. “It’s open season for virtually any speculative housebuilder in the country to come in and stick in planning applications which are very difficult to refuse.
“Local people are up in arms. They are not getting any infrastructure or any kind of gain from these developments and they see themselves as besieged by builders.”
Housebuilding in the UK has recovered from its post-crash lows and data published on Tuesday suggest a rise in activity and in mortgage approvals. But annual housebuilding, at 189,900 in 2015-16, is still below the estimate of at least 220,000 new homes needed just for the market to tread water.
The white paper is expected to emphasise the importance of building on brownfield sites and moving away from a reliance on the big housebuilders and could remove some height restrictions on new buildings.
A DCLG spokesperson said: “Local Plans put power in the hands of local people to decide where developments get built in their area. Planning policy encourages locally led development and does not set national housing targets.
“Our White Paper, to be published this month, will clearly set out how we plan to build the homes this country needs.”