Chipping Barnet MP Theresa Villiers has underlined her opposition to what she considers “excessive numbers of new flats in high-rise developments” in her constituency, characterising this as “campaigning to protect the local environment” in her outer London seat, and contending that to “urbanise the suburbs” would be to repeat the housing mistakes of past decades.
Speaking on the BBC’s Politics London show today, the Conservative former cabinet minister agreed that new housing is needed in London and has to go somewhere, but insisted “we don’t need to ram them all into the suburbs” and that to do so in her seat would be to “destroy the quality of life of my constituents”.
But in the same programme Labour’s Matthew Pennycook, MP for Greenwich & Woolwich and shadow housing secretary, said any future Labour government would want to see “a marked increase in affordable housebuilding in London and across the country, particularly in genuinely affordable social rented homes”.
Responding to Villiers, he added, “the problem is, everyone says ‘spread it somewhere else, spread it more evenly, not in my back yard’ as it were [but] the housing crisis across the country is so acute – we can’t have that happen”.
The disagreement mirrors an ongoing wrangle between Villiers, whose ultra-marginal constituency looks set to again be closely fought at the next general election, and both Labour-run Barnet Council and Labour Mayor of London Sadiq Khan over local housing supply.
She has strongly opposed Khan-backed plans for Transport for London and its developer partner Grainger to build new homes on the car park of Cockfosters station in next-door Enfield, a scheme blocked by the now former transport secretary Grant Shapps using an obscure clause of the law which brought the London mayoralty into existence.
On Politics London, Villiers also claimed that the building plans of Barnet Council, which took control of from the Tories last May, would “profoundly change the borough forever”. Though accepting that “done well, of course new development can bring benefits in the suburbs,” she added, “there has to be a point where you say ‘that is just too much'” and stressed that new developments should come with “the appropriate infrastructure” and be “in tune with the surrounding neighbourhood”.
The two politicians’ exchanges came in the context of Labour leader Keir Starmer signalling during a major speech last week that Labour is considering loosened some controls on building on Green Belt land in England to facilitate housing delivery.
Villiers described it as “shocking” that Labour had broken with many years of cross-party agreement on the issue, though Pennycook, while agreeing that “brownfield” site development was preferable in general, said that Green Belt is being built on in other parts of the country under the Tories. And he pointed out that because Mayor Khan’s London Plan is firmly in favour of maintaining its protection within the Greater London boundary, “Green Belt release on a mass scale is not going to happen, that’s not part of our conversation in London”.
Pennycook also praised Khan’s record of supporting new affordable homebuilding with his use of London’s allocation from the government’s national fund, but pointed out that a recent report from real estate services company Savills had found that London would need a further £22.2 billion from the government over five years if the supply of affordable dwellings was to meet demand.
Watch the whole of Politics London 21 May 2023 here until 20 June.
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