Homebuilders cast doubt on UK government plans to deliver new homes

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Homebuilders have said the UK government’s latest plan to boost the number of new homes in England is unlikely to help ministers achieve their homes manifesto target.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Leveling Secretary Michael Gove insisted on Monday that the Conservative administration would meet its 2019 election pledge to “build at least one million more homes” before the next vote, due in 2024.

However, critics have questioned the government’s ability to deliver a separate manifesto aiming to build 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s, which Gove has insisted it adheres to “fully”, although last year told Tory MPs it was “advice” rather than a mandatory target.

In a speech in London, Gove unveiled new proposals to concentrate housing construction in urban areas and avoid “concrete on the countryside”.

Measures included facilitating the conversion of empty shops, takeaways, barns and warehouses into housing, measures to bolster the regeneration of disused brownfield sites, and new freedoms to build extensions and convert lofts into existing homes.

Gove also announced £24million in funding and the creation of a ‘super-team’ of planners and experts to eliminate delays and unlock major property developments, starting with Cambridge.

And on Tuesday, the government is expected to announce proposals to speed up the delivery of key infrastructure projects, including offshore wind, transmission links, waste management facilities and nuclear power plants.

They will include plans to “streamline and simplify” consent processes, create a new fast-track planning process for vital projects and devote more resources to planning inspection.

The new focus on building homes in town centres, where the government insists demand is highest and growth has been limited, 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 drew fury from a local Cambridgeshire MP.

Peter Truscott, chief executive of FTSE 250 homebuilding 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 housing demand in the south east of England, where it is most acute, as abandoned brownfield sites are mainly in the north and Midlands.

Steve Turner, executive director of the Home Builders Federation, also warned that the measures “do not address the major barriers” to construction that stem from bureaucracy in the planning system and said “housing supply could be cut in half” without further government intervention.

Meanwhile, Taylor Wessing’s planning partner Alistair Watson insisted England “needs more homes beyond cities”, describing many of the government’s latest moves as an “overhaul” of previous announcements.

Concerns that converting shops to homes risked creating ‘substandard’ and ‘unsafe’ housing were voiced by Polly Neate, chief executive of 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 reforms.’

A group of development industry figures, including homebuilder 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, underutilized brownfields to be repurposed into affordable housing and unlock “up to 1.6 million 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 backed the focus on reviving city centres.

Officials stressed that the proposals were part of a long-standing reform package aimed at boosting housing and that the government was on track to create 1 million “net additional homes” by the end of this legislature. The metric includes homes created from converted buildings as well as new construction.

Gove’s plan to unblock development in Cambridge has sparked a backlash from Anthony Browne, Tory MP for South Cambridgeshire, who has vowed to fight the “absurd” move to “force massive housing construction” on the university town.

Another Tory MP from the east of England, who asked not to be named, also expressed alarm at Cambridge’s overburdened infrastructure and pointed out that the city was already growing at a rapid pace.