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Sunak pledges to deliver as he comes under pressure over housebuilding policy

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said delivering on his five priorities was what the public wanted (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Sam Blewett, PA Deputy Political Editor

Rishi Sunak has promised to work “night and day” to deliver, as he comes under pressure over the Conservatives’ dire performance in the local elections and critics turn on a failure to build sufficient houses.

The Prime Minister was on Monday trying to move on from the defeats that saw nearly 1,000 Tory councillors lose their jobs, as voters turned last week to Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens.

As the post-mortem was under way, former levelling up secretary Simon Clarke said Mr Sunak’s “major mistake” of dropping housebuilding had played a role in the poor performance.

Labour was considering putting higher taxes on foreign buyers of UK homes as the party seeks to pressure the Government on the housing crisis.

The Opposition was understood to be adapting policy to increase the 2% surcharge on stamp duty for overseas buyers and banning them purchasing more than 50% of homes in a development.

They could also introduce a rule allowing first-time buyers first access to new developments if Sir Keir Starmer forms a government.

Mr Sunak declined to apologise to the hundreds of Tory councillors who had lost their jobs when asked, after volunteering at a lunch club in Hertfordshire as part of the coronation initiative.

Former levelling up secretary Simon Clarke
Former levelling up secretary Simon Clarke said dropping housebuilding targets had been ‘a major mistake’ (Aaron Chown/PA)

Instead, he said: “It’s always disappointing to lose hard-working Conservative councillors and I said that at the time.”

The Prime Minister insisted that delivering on his five priorities, which include cutting NHS waiting lists which he is announcing policies on this week, is what the public wants.

“I know that’s not going to happen overnight but we’re going to strain every sinew to do exactly that,” he said.

“I believe those are the country’s priorities, those are my priorities and I’m going to work night and day to deliver on them for everyone.”

Mr Clarke argued that the Government’s attempts to “pander to the public’s worst instincts” of Nimbyism – wanting building but “not in my backyard” – was failing.

The Senior Tory MP, who served in Liz Truss’s chaotic and brief government, conceded the tumult of last year was behind the electoral failings as well as current policy.

But he urged colleagues not to be “raking over the coals of what happened” under past administrations and to instead focus on the present.

Mr Clarke told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “In these results, there is one theme that stands out above all others for me is that we cannot out-Nimby the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, so one aspect of policy that does need to change and change as a matter of urgency is our housing policy.

“So we can get back to building the homes that people need, making the case, the moral, economic, political case, for building the homes that a growing population requires rather than, I’m afraid, trying to pander to the public’s worst instincts on this question, which isn’t working.

“I would say that dropping those targets was a major mistake and I would like those restored.”

He also said there was a need to give more resources to council planning departments, to look at incentives for new infrastructure and to take on the “hollowness” of the Nimby position.

Last year, Mr Sunak caved in to pressure from Tory backbenchers to make the target of building 300,000 houses a year in England advisory rather than mandatory and has argued there is little support for “top-down targets”.

Some argue that while housebuilding may be needed to increase the chances of holding on to the northern voters won over by Boris Johnson, it will be damaging to the Tories’ chances in their more traditional southern heartlands.

But Mr Clarke said: “The point is that we’ve lost huge swathes of councillors in the South East while having dropped targets and having run away from this argument, so it’s not rewarding us in the South East, it’s actually hurting us.”

The Tories shed 960 councillors across England in Thursday’s elections in a result approaching the party’s most pessimistic predictions.

Labour gained 635 seats and won control of 22 councils, and the Liberal Democrats also performed strongly.

Meanwhile, the Lib Dems hope to add to the pressure on Mr Sunak by tabling a motion of no confidence in his Government in the Commons as soon as Tuesday.

The Prime Minister would be highly likely to win if it reached a vote because he commands a large majority in the House.

Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey said: “The local elections showed that the public clearly has no confidence in Sunak or the Conservatives, so it’s time for a general election now.

“There’s only one reason Rishi Sunak would deny British people a say at the ballot box: because he is running scared and knows he’d lose.”