Michael Gove will instruct his Levelling Up department to boost homebuilding in the north of England, after widespread concerns that previous proposals could see development targeted overwhelmingly in the south.
Gove, the new levelling up secretary, has been given the task of overhauling controversial plans set out in a white paper last year, which have widely been seen as tipping the balance of power in favour of developers and away from local objectors.
The prime minister is determined to press ahead with boosting housing development on brownfield sites, including in the south. But it is understood Gove will significantly water down the reforms.
Two central proposals in the reforms, announced under his predecessor Robert Jenrick, are expected to be largely abandoned.
In particular, the “zonal” approach, which would have seen local people unable to reject housing in areas designated for development, will be dropped. “That’s gone,” said one cabinet minister.
Mandatory housebuilding targets, which caused widespread alarm among southern Tories, are also expected to be overhauled.
Gove, who is only a few weeks into the job, suggested he wanted to give the reforms a different focus. At a fringe event on Monday, Gove said he had been struck by research that suggested the disparity between the lifetime costs of rents and of a mortgage was actually higher in Yorkshire and the north east, a hint at how he plans to reprioritise.
“Actually it shows that if you really, really want to help those who are currently in rented accommodation and want to own their own homes, then the focus shouldn’t necessarily be geographically where it’s been before,” he said.
The rejigged proposals are also likely to see communities given more of a share in the financial benefits of granting local developments, and tougher constraints put on developers to improve the local environment.
As well as the planning overhaul, Gove’s renamed department has the task of setting out how the government will “level up” the UK.
Johnson has made levelling up the central mission of his government, after winning a string of former Labour seats in the Midlands and north in the 2019 general election – but a speech in Coventry earlier this year was criticised for lacking specific policies.
Justice secretary Dominic Raab, whose Esher and Walton seat is one of the Liberal Democrats’ top targets, conceded at a fringe meeting at the Conservative conference on Tuesday that it was hard to persuade his voters to support levelling up.
“For me, the challenge is selling it down south, in London. As someone who has got a constituency which pays a huge amount of tax, provides a huge amount of revenue to the exchequer, the question you get asked is ‘what’s in it for us?’” he said.
He argued that they would ultimately have to pay fewer taxes, if other parts of the country start contributing more.
“What’s in it for my constituents in London and the south-east is we will not be so heavily reliant on the central economic engine of London and the south-east; you will have poles of economic activity from the west – Bath, Bristol – Oxfordshire, Cambridgeshire and that corridor, the Midlands engine, the north and other parts of the UK,” he said. “That will take the tax revenue pressure off London and the south-east.”