On Monday 5 September 2022, Liz Truss was – as had been widely expected – named as the new leader of the Conservative Party and, in turn, Britain’s new Prime Minister.
The Queen’s death only a few days later, and a couple of days after she had met Truss to invite her to form a new government, has understandably overtaken everything and it seems unlikely that politics will return to business as normal for some time yet.
But when it does, Truss has quite the in-tray to deal with, especially in respects to the cost-of-living crisis (she used her first major intervention as PM to announce an energy price freeze) and dealing with the passing of the UK’s longest-reigning monarch.
She will also be expected to set out her plans for major policy areas such as housing. So let’s explore what we know already about Truss’s intentions for housing and what she could look to implement early into her premiership.
Scrapping housebuilding targets and building on brownfield land
During the long leadership campaign battle, which saw Truss appear at numerous debates and hustings, as well as giving various TV interviews, little was heard about her plans for housing.
But she did promise to build more homes on brownfield land and make this process easier – in terms of gaining planning permission and clearing sites – to increase the supply of new homes.
At the same time, she has been a strong critic of housebuilding targets, and has promised to scrap the Government’s long-held target of building 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s, claiming that such a plan would be detrimental to creating economic growth.
She has previously talked about removing ‘Whitehall-inspired Stalinist housing targets’, instead focusing on tax cuts and deregulation for housebuilding companies to reduce building delays.
Elsewhere, she has pledged to make it easier for tenants to buy houses by enabling monthly rent contributions to count towards acquiring a mortgage on first homes, while also promising to give local councils the control back when it comes to new housing projects.
There had also been speculation earlier in the leadership race that Truss would be happy for interest rates to go much higher to help see off inflation. Suella Braverman, the now Home Secretary who became a Truss backer after her own bid to become the new PM failed, said her new boss would review whether the Bank of England ‘is fit for purpose’ if elected.
“Interest rates should have been raised a long time ago and the Bank of England has been too slow in this regard,” Braverman said.
“Liz Truss has made clear that she wants to review the mandate that the Bank of England has, so that’s going to be looking in detail at exactly what the Bank of England does and see whether it’s actually fit for purpose in terms of its entire exclusionary independence over interest rates.”
This produced a fierce backlash, including from Andrew Bailey, the Bank’s Governor, who said it was vitally important for the BoE to remain wholly independent and make decisions free from government intervention.
More recently, according to a report in the i newspaper, it was revealed that Truss is set to overhaul planning laws in a bid to end central housebuilding targets and allow local communities to approve new developments more easily. It’s a move that's likely to create a backlash and divisions within her own party, with very different opinions among MPs regarding how planning should be tackled.
In her first PMQs, Truss revealed she would be asking the new Housing Secretary Simon Clarke to ‘water’ down the powers of the Planning Inspectorate, which has blocked some high-profile new developments in recent times. Truss claimed it was ‘too easy’, at present, for the body to overrule the decisions of councils.
The i also understands that Clarke is looking at enacting Truss’s leadership promise to scrap ‘Soviet-style’ and ‘top-down’ housing targets. They could aim to change the Levelling Up Bill which is currently making its way through parliament to make this so, although any such move will likely face a backlash from Tory MPs in so-called Blue Wall seats who could be facing losing their seats to the Liberal Democrats at the next election.
The Tories’ defeat to the Lib Dems in the Chesham and Amersham by-election in June 2021, which some point to as the beginning of the end for Boris Johnson’s premiership, was in part laid at the door of controversial planning proposals that then Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick was trying to push through. The Lib Dems achieved a 25-point swing in the surprise victory.
Truss has previously faced criticism for her ideas when it comes to planning, saying back in 2018 that the Conservatives much accept building homes in the countryside as a necessity, and complaining about the levels of opposition to such a move.
As well as promising to put more power in the hands of local people and councillors, and slash red tape to make the system less bureaucratic, slow and complex, and therefore more appealing to councils when it comes to building homes, Truss has also pledged to bring in new low-tax, low-planning law, and low-regulation investment zones to allow for the creation of new model towns, inspired by major regeneration projects such as the London Docklands.
Who makes up her housing team?
As mentioned, Simon Clarke, who was an early backer of Truss’s campaign, has taken on the role of Secretary of State for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. The 37-year-old Teesside MP was previously Chief Secretary to the Treasury and a known Boris Johnson loyalist.
He takes over from Greg Clark, who was appointed as part of Johnson’s temporary cabinet and was only in the role for around two months. Clark himself took over from Michael Gove after he was sacked in the dying days of Johnson’s premiership.
Meanwhile, the rest of DLUHC is taking on a radically different shape.
Going rather unnoticed as major events took place elsewhere was the resignation of Eddie Hughes, a housing and homelessness minister and a key architect of the White Paper on rental reform, while Marcus Jones – a backer of Rishi Sunak – announced he was leaving his role as housing minister after only two months.
Hughes had been the only survivor from the chaotic days before and after Boris Johnson’s resignation, with other ministers at the time either resigning themselves or stepping down.
Paul Scully and Lia Nici, who joined the department in the aftermath of Johnson’s resignation, remain as Minister of State and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Minister for Levelling Up), while Dehenna Davison and Lee Rowley have now joined the department as junior ministers. Interestingly, Rowley – the MP for East Derbyshire – was one of those who resigned from government and called for Johnson to ‘step aside’.
Further details of ministerial portfolios have yet to be released and are unlikely to be confirmed fully until after the Queen’s funeral takes place.
What will Truss’s first moves be?
The plans for rental reform are already quite far down the line, in light of the White Paper on Rental Reform, but as with possible amendments to the Levelling Up Bill, Truss might seek to water down some of the proposals to appease landlords, who feel the current plans are too much in favour of tenants.
It’s unlikely that the ongoing work to introduce more upfront information to property listings will be affected by the change in PM, with National Trading Standards continuing to take the lead on this. However there will be calls to go faster in improving the home buying and selling process, as well as finally considering the proposals of the RoPA working group to further professionalise the property sector.
Leaseholders will hope the progress that has been made recently on leasehold reform will continue, while there will remain a focus on improving building safety and solving the cladding crisis.
Perhaps Truss’s most difficult balancing act will be when it comes to planning, and building enough new homes while not alienating too many of her own MPs and voters.