Rise of the Nimby party: the Tory house-building dilemma

Building more housing is unpopular in many Conservative strongholds but is becoming a key political issue

A row of houses
Rishi Sunak has dropped a promise to build 300,000 houses a year
(Image credit: Richard Baker/In Pictures via Getty Images)

Critics have hit out at Rishi Sunak’s decision to abandon house-building targets, citing it as a significant factor in his party’s poor showing in last week’s local elections.

The move has sparked debate over the Conservative Party’s housing policy, which is now emerging as a key political battleground. Former levelling up secretary Simon Clarke believes that Sunak made a “major mistake” in dropping the target to build 300,000 houses in England each year, caving into pressure from rebellious Tory backbenchers.

The senior Conservative MP argued that the decision to abandon the target played a role in the Conservatives’ dismal local election results. Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Clarke said that the government’s attempts to “pander to the public’s worst instincts” on the issue of building more homes “isn’t working”.

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He added that the Conservative Party could not “out-Nimby the Liberal Democrats or the Greens”, stressing that the party’s housing policy needed to change “as a matter of urgency” and advised the government to restore the targets.

‘Government in unambiguous retreat’

Sunak’s decision to make the target advisory rather than mandatory has led to a “collapse” in the already low number of houses being built each year by councils, particularly in the Conservatives’ southern strongholds, according to the i news site.

Ahead of the local elections, some Conservative MPs already feared that the move could cost them councillors, said The Sun, with some worrying that they could be seen as the “Nimby” party. Predicting a dire result on election night Tory MP Mark Jenkinson warned that “short-termism on housing will cost us dearly”.

There have been many attempts from the Conservatives to “liberalise planning” in the last 13 years, said former Tory cabinet minister David Gauke in The New Statesman, “but the government is now in unambiguous retreat”. House-building is set to “slow further” not least because “Tory voters dislike new housing and Conservative MPs in the Home Counties fear that new homes will be filled with incomers from London who are unlikely to give up their non-Tory voting habits the moment they cross the M25”.

‘A key political fault line’

But housing has now become a “key political fault line in British politics”, said Politics.co.uk, demonsrated by the way in which Labour leader Keir Starmer has been “amping up his anti-NIMBYism in recent days”. Speaking to Sky News, Starmer vowed to “take on the NIMBYs”, arguing that “we need to get the [central housing] target back, to show strength and build out of the damage the PM has inflicted on the country”.

The Labour Party has adopted the Conservatives’ now-scrapped manifesto promise to build 300,000 homes, in a move that is “plainly intended to highlight the Conservative party’s construction shortcomings”. Meanwhile, Sunak is also reportedly attempting to resurrect the David Cameron era Help to Buy scheme, which is likely to “delight few”, according to Politics.co.uk.

Every prime minister since Cameron has failed to tackle the UK’s housing shortfall, reverting to “Nimbyist type”, wrote columnist Liam Halligan in The Telegraph. “Does Sunak understand that the sacred greenbelt, far from being ‘concreted over’, has more than doubled in size over the last 40 years?” Meanwhile, “much of the greenbelt is anyway inaccessible to the public or ugly urban scrub – of no aesthetic value.

“Yet wealthy homeowners keep dressing up basic selfishness as holier-than-thou environmentalism,” Halligan continued. But the fact remains that “we simply must build more homes so our young people have the chance to live in dignity and raise families”.

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