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Will Levelling Up bring down the Conservative Party?

The Conservative Party, it would seem, will always have something that divides it. For decades it was Europe, and in the post-Brexit world it would now appear it’s Levelling Up, with housing targets and onshore windfarms seemingly determining Rishi Sunak’s grip on the party just four weeks into his premiership.

The Prime Minister will face his first major test on Monday, when the Conservative Party try to agree on what Levelling Up means. In order to get his version of Levelling Up through the House of Commons, Sunak will need to stare down the Right of his party and do battle with former Prime Ministers Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.

The first part of Liz Truss’s Levelling Up agenda to be scrapped by Rishi Sunak was the low-tax investment zones designed to encourage businesses and developers to build in left-behind areas to spread economic activity. Instead, local authorities will be able to apply for the second round of Levelling Up handouts by the Government, with Sunak’s strategy reverting to that of Boris Johnson and government investment being favoured over private sector tax breaks. Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove confirmed earlier this week that there had been 90 local authorities across the UK who had applied for investment zones, with 626 potential zones previously under consideration before the initiative was scrapped.

This reversal of Liz Truss’s policy, however, has been overshadowed by a growing split within the Conservative Party on housing targets, a central part of Boris Johnson’s Levelling Up vision. The Right of the party want to scrap top-down targets for local authorities to build new properties in their areas, with 47 Conservative MPs publicly opposing the 300,000 new homes per year target outlined by Boris Johnson and continued by Rishi Sunak. In the summer, Liz Truss won the Conservative Party Leadership contest running on a policy of scrapping the targets and continuing them will prove unpopular with Conservative Party members, the majority of whom did not support Rishi Sunak to be leader. This split is proving to be a major problem for Sunak, who would not have the votes to get the Bill through if 47 of his own MPs oppose him, with rumours that the debate on Monday could be pushed back to give the Government more time to whip votes. A reversal of policy on housing targets could be disastrous for Sunak’s authority within the Conservative Parliamentary Party, with 47 MPs holding the power over the remaining 309.

Another row brewing within the Conservative Party is over onshore windfarms. Despite producing green, homegrown energy, onshore windfarms have always been unpopular with Conservative grass roots voters, who see the noisy turbines as an eye-sore, taking up space that could overwise be used for agriculture and food production, with David Cameron effectively banning the production of new onshore windfarms in 2014. With the war in Ukraine forcing the government to seek more homegrown energy sources, there is a growing group in favour of restarting onshore wind production, with the Conservative Party split between supporting home-grown energy development and pandering to grass-roots voters. Unlike the opposition to housing targets, which is primarily amongst the ‘usual suspects’ of agitators to the Right of the Parliamentary Party, those calling for greater use of onshore windfarms include former Levelling Up Secretary Simon Clarke, who is proposing the amendment to lift the ban, as well as former Prime Ministers Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. A defeat for Rishi Sunak against both his predecessors could put a massive dent in his authority, especially with many both in Parliament and in the wider membership still clinging on to the dream of a Boris Johnson comeback.

While MPs in Parliament are fighting amongst themselves, local authorities are wondering how to proceed with Levelling Up bids, regeneration projects and Local Plans. The revolving door of Prime Ministers and Levelling Up Secretaries in recent months, each with their own ideas of what Levelling Up should look like, has left local authorities in limbo. Housing targets are central to Local Plans, they determine how many new developments are required and where they should go, which in turn determines where new schools, shops and GP surgeries need to go. If the rebels in the Conservative Party are successful in overturning top-down housing targets then we should expect a raft of Local Plan delays, withdrawals and changes as Councils seek to reduce the number of new developments in order to please rural voters and those in more affluent areas who oppose developments in their ‘own back yards’.

The debate about energy security has also left local authorities guessing in recent months, with Liz Truss’s lift on the fracking ban leaving Councils concerned, before being scrapped under Rishi Sunak and potentially set to be replaced with onshore wind if Simon Clarke’s amendment is successful, which is equally as unpopular in certain quarters of the country.

The rebellions growing within the Conservative Party are unlikely to bring down the Government, if there’s one thing that unites the Conservative Parliamentary Party right now it’s fear of a General Election, but they could certainly dent Rishi Sunak’s authority just weeks into his premiership. Any illusion of unity and stability under Rishi Sunak after months of turmoil seems to have been abandoned now. If neither side backs down over housing targets or onshore wind, the already much-delayed Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill will likely be delayed even further, with the Government hoping that minor adjustments to the text will appease the rebels who are calling for fundamental changes.

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