Why is levelling up causing Rishi Sunak so many problems?

Tory revolts on onshore wind farms and housebuilding targets threaten government’s flagship policy

Onshore wind farms
New onshore wind farms have effectively been banned in the UK since 2015
(Image credit: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Rishi Sunak is facing a Tory revolt on multiple fronts as he battles to bring the government’s flagship Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill to Parliament before Christmas.

There are reports the prime minister is preparing to back down and lift a ban on onshore wind farms after a campaign led by former levelling up secretary Simon Clarke gained support from former PMs Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. On Sunday, former party chairman Sir Jake Berry added his name to the list of MPs backing the amendment, with the current levelling up secretary, Michael Gove, “also understood to want an end to the ban”, said Sky News.

It comes just days after Sunak was forced to pull a vote on plans for mandatory, centrally-set targets to build 300,000 homes a year, after around 50 Tory MPs signed an amendment that would have scrapped housebuilding targets.

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It was a “major embarrassment” for the PM, HuffPost said. The government whips office is having to “work overtime as Tory MPs challenge the prime minister’s authority on a range of issues”, the news site added, with the forthcoming levelling up bill “a particular focal point for revolting Conservative backbenchers”.

What did the newspapers say?

Allowing onshore wind farms with local consent “would almost certainly mean giving the go-ahead in many areas, as public support for the technology grows during the current energy crisis”, said The Independent.

It would, however, go directly against a promise made by Sunak during the summer’s Tory leadership election to “scrap plans to relax the ban on onshore wind in England, instead focusing on building more turbines offshore”.

Having already seen off Johnson’s planning reforms, a group of MPs led by Theresa Villiers are backing an amendment to scrap housebuilding targets altogether. This would sound the “death knell”, according to The Independent, for the Tory manifesto promise to build 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s, a key plank of the government’s levelling up strategy.

Writing in The Sunday Times, former Tory chancellor Sajid Javid attacked the rebels, saying that “tearing down the existing planning system and failing to build anything credible to replace it would be a colossal failure of political leadership”.

Housebuilders have accused ministers and “nimby backbenchers” of failing to tackle barriers to development, “saying that red tape and hold-ups in the system were preventing millions of people from getting on the ladder”, said The Telegraph.

Another challenge to the government’s levelling up agenda is the ongoing disruption to rail services operating across the north of England, which after months of misery for commuters are now at risk of complete collapse.

“While Boris Johnson’s levelling up agenda largely tried to make empty rhetoric look solid, where the former prime minister was right was to promote the importance of better transport for breaking down regional inequalities,” said The Guardian. “It was a vote winner in 2019 that has resulted in zero change whatsoever.”

The i news site reported that business leaders are “pleading with central Government to sort the ongoing problems across the north, warning it is hammering the regional economy and risks deepening the recession”.

What next?

Having been pulled to allow time for an agreement to be reached with rebel MPs on onshore wind and housebuilding, the levelling up bill is expected back in Parliament in early December, “bringing both issues to a showdown before Christmas”, said the Mirror.

On housebuilding, Sunak faces a tricky balancing act between placating traditional Tory voters in the south of England and honouring his pledge to those who voted Tory for the first time in 2019 to level up by building more homes.

In The Sunday Times, Javid warned that a generation could “turn its back on the politicians who failed them” if the promise to deliver enough new homes was not met, while The New Statesman said: “The long-term impact of such a move would be to demolish the foundations for future Conservative governments.”

Labour said it is planning to back the Clarke amendment lifting the ban on onshore windfarms “to pile the pressure on Sunak”, reported Sky News.

However, the shadow levelling up secretary Lisa Nandy indicated that Labour could be prepared to vote down the Villiers amendment scrapping house building targets to help get the levelling up bill through Parliament.

The simple question for the cabinet, said The New Statesman, is this: “do they think the Levelling Up Bill is worth passing? Will it be good for the country? If so, it is their duty to get it through, even if it means facing down the ‘local patriots’ on their own back benches.”

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