The new prime minister says she wants to scrap housing targets, but back in 2019 she wanted to build on the green belt. How likely is a return to pro-development principles now she is in office, wonders Joey Gardiner

“God, it’s depressing.” That’s the view of one senior (pro-housebuilding) Tory party policy insider on Liz Truss’s campaign pledge to ditch so-called “Stalinist” housing targets – something that about which many in both the development and planning sectors are understandably alarmed.

That pledge, effectively putting the new prime minister at odds with the 2019 manifesto promise to build 300,000 homes a year which housing targets are designed to deliver, came as Truss also reassured Conservative members worried about too many houses being built near them by reaffirming her commitment to “local consent” for housing policies.

Truss’s campaign promises came from a well-rehearsed Conservative Party rhetorical playbook, long-trusted to warm the cockles of the backwoods members whose votes she was seeking. Remember when former communities secretary Eric Pickles abolished New Labour’s regional spatial strategies in 2011? He justified it by describing them, in eerily familiar language, as “failed Soviet, tractor-style, top-down planning targets”.

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Joey Gardiner is contributing editor on Building and sister title Housing Today

The difference here is that the policies Truss is talking about ripping up are not only the Conservative government’s own policies, they are ones in the very manifesto that Truss has also pledged – in her acceptance speech two weeks ago – to implement.

“I intend to deliver what we promised those voters right across our great country [in 2019],” she said, as she was handed victory.

This Nimby-ish rhetoric, however, also seems to run counter to much else that Truss herself has said about housing – in part in the campaign itself, but particularly in previous years, when she has been a staunch advocate of building homes, even on the green belt. Building’s sister title Housing Today has launched a campaign called A Fair Deal for Housing. It is calling on the government to recommit itself to that 300k target and develop policies to promote housebuilding more generally - exactly the kind of approach Truss has previously advocated, until this summer

Now that the campaign is over, which Truss are we now likely to get: the liberal free-marketeer; or Truss 2.0, the Nimby, shire-Tory conservative? And what are the chance of a fair deal for the housing sector?

So, with the early exchanges with Labour leader Keir Starmer showing Truss appears unafraid to flaunt her Thatcherite inclinations, the important question for the residential development sector is, now that the campaign is over, which Truss are we now likely to get: the liberal free-marketeer, or Truss 2.0, the Nimby, shire-Tory conservative? And what are the chances of a fair deal for the housing sector?

>> See also: Seven things you need to know about new housing secretary Simon Clarke

Not so long ago, after all, Truss was arguing the case to build one million homes on the green belt around London and other major cities, saying this was essential in order to give families under 40 enough places to buy their own homes.

Incredibly, this argument was the core of Truss’s pitch when she was considering a run for the Tory leadership in 2019 to replace Theresa May – which perhaps shows you how the party’s thinking on planning and housing has changed since then.

Encouragingly for housebuilders, the author of the report on which Truss based much of the thinking behind this argument was one Simon Clarke MP, the person she has just appointed as Levelling Up secretary in charge of the housing brief. The policy insider said his appointment was “extremely good news”, adding: “He has the right instincts. He has strong views, but can be flexible. He’ll bat for housebuilding.”

Clarke has already said in television interviews following his appointment, that while he agrees with the decision to remove top-down targets, “we absolutely need, as a country, to build more homes. There can be no question about that”.

Whatever else happens, many in the industry are optimistic about a far better relationship with the government under Truss and Clarke than was managed under Michael Gove, who refused to meet with the sector’s leaders.

Added to this, Truss did make pledges during her leadership campaign which have been welcomed by developers, most notably to “remove Brussel red tape” on nutrient neutrality, but also to introduce “opportunity zones” with “reduced planning restrictions”, and encourage the creation of new towns.

Given all this, one could make the case that Truss was simply making the right noises for the Tory member “selectorate”, but that, with the leadership campaign done and dusted, she will return to her principles and unleash a new round of deregulatory planning reform.

The danger according to insiders and close observers of the Conservative Party, is that – sorry to say it – planning reform and housing simply won’t be on her agenda. The most obvious reason is that she has much bigger fish to fry.

The problems list is endless, from the energy crisis, a deepening economic emergency, the fall in sterling, waiting times in the NHS, runaway inflation, the Northern Ireland Protocol and the war in Ukraine – to name just some of the most obvious.

But it’s not just that. Beyond her immediate in-tray – and hers is as daunting as any prime minister has faced in 70 years – observers say that the principle strategic goal of her team is getting re-elected in 2024. Interventions and actions, therefore, will be prioritised on the basis that they contribute to this goal.

Now, while you can imagine that a new home ownership assistance scheme – given the expiry of Help to Buy – might be prioritised, as it can help voters quickly, it is hard to see that much else Truss could do on housing and planning will help with her 2024 re-election campaign. Planning reform takes, at a minimum, an entire electoral cycle to deliver any benefits in terms of real outcomes that people see such as homes, schools, offices etc.

In fact, embarking on controversial planning reform is much more likely to cost Truss votes in the short term, as the Chesham and Amersham by-election viscerally demonstrated. The nakedly political argument in favour of building homes within the Conservative Party (aside from it being the right thing to do) has always been a long-term challenge – that, without a healthy supply of homes to ensure a new generation of homeowners, you are less likely to turn young people into Conservative voters (asset owners are much more likely to vote Conservative). It is essentially short-term pain (of planning controversy) versus long-term gain (more home-owning Conservatives).

With 2024 as the timeframe, planning reform just does not figure as relevant. It cannot produce results. If Truss retains any ambitions in this area, most see it as a post-election event – on the assumption that she sticks around that long.

In addition to arguments that mitigate against her doing anything positive on planning reform, there is also the fact that Truss will at the same time be held sharply to account by those backbench Conservatives who are worried about planning reform – such as Peter Bottomley and Theresa Villiers – for the promises she has made to ditch top-down targets and retain local consent.

Embarking on controversial planning reform is much more likely to cost Truss votes in the short term, as the Chesham and Amersham by-election viscerally demonstrated

There is wriggle room in the way Truss phrased her commitment, which was to “abolish the top-down, Whitehall-inspired Stalinist housing targets”, but you can be sure that Villiers and like-minded colleagues will argue strongly that it implied an end to all local housing targets entirely – an outcome developers regard as little short of disastrous.

The hope of the industry will be that the new housing secretary manages to limit the interpretation of this pledge so that local targets are retained – but simply the “top-down” nature by which they are generated is altered.

In addition, the nutrient neutrality pledge – which will essentially require exempting housebuilders from certain aspects of water quality regulation – looks fiendishly difficult to deliver politically after a summer in which water pollution has been near the top of the news agenda. Many close to the Conservative Party are likewise sceptical of that coming forward any time soon, even though Clarke, as MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, represents an area hit hard by the nutrients crisis.

Whatever Truss’s political instincts are, it looks unlikely that we will see radical action on planning before the next election, but hopefully this will change. Whether the sector, overall, gets closer to a fair deal than it did under Gove, who appeared to have his head set against it, remains to be seen.

Housing Today’s A Fair Deal for Housing campaign will continue to bang the drum for a proper commitment to 300,000 homes from the government as it promised in 2019, and we will develop – with your help – a package of solutions to help us get there.

Joey Gardiner is contributing editor at Building and Housing Today