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Fiddling while Rhodes burns

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Good Monday morning. This is Rosa Prince — Dan Bloom will be with you on Tuesday.


NO REST: It might be the start of recess but the politics hasn’t quite stopped. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak kicks off the summer break by joining Leveling-Up Secretary Michael Gove to stake out ground on what is likely to be one of the major election battlegrounds: housing. Gove delivers a speech in King’s Cross at 9.30 a.m. while the PM visits a former brownfield site in the West Midlands at 10 a.m., from where he’ll release a clip. 

Battle rejoined: With both the main parties (and the Lib Dems) having something to crow about following last week’s mixed bag of by-election results, battle rejoins over a policy which has long been a political step-child. Housing has rocketed up the agenda in recent years, with the pace of turnover of housing ministers not exactly matched by the rate of actual house building.

The policy: In words briefed overnight, No 10. pledged that the 2019 manifesto target to build a million homes in this parliament would be met. Expect both Sunak and Gove to be questioned about the same manifesto’s target to build 300,000 homes a year, which the latter assured NIMBY-minded Tory MPs last year was an aspiration rather than a promise. 

Concrete jungle: Rather than “concrete over the countryside,” the pair will promise that new development will be come in suitable brownfield locations in cities — an apparent pop at Labour after leader Keir Starmer promised to permit building on the green belt. It’s a phrase which highlights the somewhat tricky path the government has to navigate, with Conservative backbenchers already notoriously leery about development in their own backyards, and likely to be even jumpier as the election looms and all politics becomes local.

**A message from Lloyds Banking Group: We’re calling on policymakers to work together to address the UK’s chronic shortage of social housing by building one million new and genuinely affordable homes by 2033. Our survey of 7,000 UK adults found that almost three quarters (73%) of the British public want to see more social homes built. Find out more.**

The policy: Plans to remove barriers to converting retail and agricultural buildings into residential properties were heavily trailed at the weekend. Today’s papers carry Gove’s push for an “urban quarter” in Cambridge, and new freedoms to carry out loft conversions and build extensions. An Office for Place will help come up with development designs, with input from local communities. There will be a new £24 million Planning Skills Delivery Fund to clear backlogs. And a consultation will be launched into how to ensure local development plans are more accessible. The FT has more here.

Ouch: Far from delivering the 300,000 new build holy grail, the property consultancy Knight Frank suggested the proposals were “unlikely to have meaningful impact on housing supply.” The firm’s Head of Planning Stuart Baillie said in a statement reproduced in several papers: “It’s likely that the output of this policy will only create hundreds of new homes, instead of the many thousands needed to make a real impact on the UK’s significant housing shortage.” 

NOT BUILDING HERE: The Independent splashes on figures showing low rates of development by local authorities, with half of councils failing to build a single home in 2022. There are now more than 1.2 million families on the waiting list for properties, the paper says.

SCOOP: The government’s own housing agency, Homes England, posted losses of £148.3 million arising from bad loans in 2022/23, in figures snuck out in the traditional end of term pre-recess dump last week. Much of the losses arose from seven investments which had their value decreased or written off entirely. In two cases, accounting for 97 percent of the total, Homes England refused to disclose details citing regulations against market abuse. 

It’s just … a lot: In the year to March 31, there was another £230 million of bad loans on the agency’s books that it was seeking to recover through enforcement activity, up from £51 million two years ago. The figures were in the agency’s annual report and uncovered by Labour. A party official told Playbook: “How can Michael Gove stand up and trumpet the benefits of a new £24 million fund for planning skills delivery when his own housing agency has just written off six times that amount in bad loans over the last year alone?”

More Labour: Shadow Housing Secretary Lisa Nandy dismissed her oppo’s plans, saying: “We don’t need more reviews, press releases or empty promises, we need bold action to get Britain building. That’s why Labour has set out plans to reform the planning system to build the homes we need.”

MEANWHILE, BACK WITH THE PM: With Sunak hoping to take his first summer holiday in five years this recess, my colleague Esther Webber writes that he’s going to need it. Conservative MPs have departed Westminster for their constituencies, where many tell her they are braced for an ear-battering from voters. The PM has promised to return in the fall with a new “vision” for the country. One backbencher told Esther, above all “what I am desperate to hear is more passion.”

THIS WON’T HELP: The latest YouGov poll for the Times shows Sunak is seen by voters as less trustworthy and more out of touch than Starmer, with Labour leading the Conservatives on the economy.


NPF NO PROBS: Keir Starmer got through his first test of recess, after Labour’s National Policy Forum (NPF) approved his vision without toooo many problems. Left-wing attempts to secure tougher pledges on scrapping the two-child welfare limit and introducing free school meals were sidestepped, and while Unite refused to sign up to the final document, the remaining big trade unions and the other major players endorsed the final doc happily enough.

Reminder: The NPF gathers before a general election to draw up proposals which, while not binding on the leadership, are broadly designed to form a jumping off point for the manifesto. The 2024 (probs) policy platform was thrashed out over the weekend in Nottingham, aka the most tedious mini-break in history. Here’s Starmer’s little video of what went on. Like your granda’s holiday slide show, you don’t have to watch but it’ll make him happy.

On message: A senior Labour official told Playbook the gathering had gone as well as could be expected, with discipline maintained and everyone more or less singing from the same hymn sheet. They added: “It shows people are serious about winning. There will always be a few who don’t get it, but by and large people across the wider movement totally do.”

Those who don’t get it: In a statement, Unite said: “Unite was unable to back the document in full as it clearly crossed the union’s red lines. As the general election draws nearer, Keir Starmer has to prove Labour will deliver for workers and we need clear policies on this.” The Telegraph has more. There was plenty of Twitter grumbling too, including this from former Jeremy Corbyn aide Matt Zarb-Cousin.

A helpful defeat: In his Times column, Patrick Maguire reckons last week’s narrow loss of Uxbridge was counterintuitively helpful to Starmer — in persuading his party not to heed the siren voice of those not fully signed up to message discipline on spending.

THIS COULD KICK OFF: With Rishi Sunak and his team making mischief in recent months over Starmer’s shaky stance on trans rights, it made sense for the party to use the NPF to firm up its lines to take on gender and sex. The Guardian’s Aubrey Allegretti has seen the resulting text, which is said to pledge that a Labour government would modernize the gender recognition process but does not explicitly come out in favor of self-ID. Shadow Secretary for Equalities Anneliese Dodds has an op-ed in the paper, which should go live around now. 

ELECTORAL DYSFUNCTION: My colleague Dan Bloom has seen the section in the NPF doc relating to another future headache — electoral reform. A line added since the leaked NPF draft earlier this year says Labour “will review the voting system for directly elected mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners.” Might this open the door to restoring the “supplementary vote” system, which the government ditched in favor of first past the post in 2021 (to Labour protests at the time)?

Fudge-a-rama: Another passage added since spring says Labour “will review and respond to the evidence” on making voters show ID at elections. But … it doesn’t say the party will scrap the policy.

Still in there: “Labour will introduce votes for 16- and 17-year-olds.”


RHODES IS BURNING: Downing Street said Rishi Sunak kept up to date with the situation in Rhodes through the weekend, as thousands of British holidaymakers were forced to flee wildfires triggered by the mega heatwave that’s still burning across the south of Europe. With the blazes now hitting Corfu too, Foreign Office Minister Andrew Mitchell is on the morning round — timings below. The Telegraph, Guardian, Mirror and Sun splash on the fires, and all the papers carry some extraordinary pics of tourists fleeing the infernos.

Call the engines: The FCDO is leading on the response, with cross government meetings held through Saturday and Sunday. A Foreign Office rapid deployment team is now at Rhodes airport to assist Brits forced to flee without travel docs. In the Telegraph, Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Alicia Kearns accuses the government of acting too slowly, saying the team should have been on the ground days ago.

Fire fire: The government is putting pressure on travel operators to ensure enough flights are available to evacuate customers and to provide “clear and quick communications,” as accusations mount that firms have abandoned holiday-makers to their fate with little assistance. The official advice to anyone in Rhodes is to contact your travel operator regarding flights, and to continue checking the Foreign Office website for updates.

Pour on water: POLITICO’s Eastern Mediterranean Correspondent Nektaria Stamouli emails in to say: “Some 19,000 people were evacuated by land and sea over the weekend. Tourists escaped from five-star luxury hotels and were forced to the beach and were stranded for hours before coastguards or private boats took them to safety. Others had to spend the night in hotel lobbies, gyms, schools or boats docked at the port.”

Europe’s burning: Nektaria adds: “Temperatures reached 43C in Athens on Sunday afternoon and 45C in the interior plains of central Greece. After a small respite from the heat on Monday, another heat wave — the third in July — will start Tuesday and last until Friday.”

LET IT BURN: What does the heat wave tell us about climate change — and what we in Britain should do about it? Not much, apparently, if you’re a Westminster politician anyway. The i’s front page (and half of Twitter) raises the apparent disconnect between the scenes in Greece and politicians’ allergy to going green in the wake of the Uxbridge by-election. My POLITICO colleague Annabelle Dickson has more on how Westminster’s finest seem to be falling over themselves to jettison once en vogue environmental pledges now labeled too costly in terms of both cash and votes. 

Didn’t get the memo: The Guardian reports London Mayor Sadiq Khan will press ahead with his controversial ULEZ gas guzzler tax, seen as having cost Labour Boris Johnson’s old seat, which, er, may not go down too well with LOTO. Intriguingly, the Independent’s Jon Stone suggests that briefing to the Sunday papers that Khan was “reviewing” the policy came not from City Hall but Team Starmer.

Blue meanies: And it’s not just Labour people now caught up in an internal battle over the clash between green aspirations and the reality check of how to save the planet during a cost of living crisis. With both Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg discussing at the weekend the desirability of cooling our jets on achieving net-zero, and Zac Goldsmith and Alok Sharma making the contrary case, the Times reports that Sunak has decided some reverse green-washing is necessary to win votes.

Heart not in it: There’s plenty of crunchy policy detail in the Times report on exactly which green policies could be dumped, but it’s the quotes (anonymous) that are most arresting. One person who worked with Sunak on climate issues tells Whitehall Editor Chris Smyth: “He’s just not interested in it. He’s not opposed to it — he’s just not interested.” A Sunak “ally” is quoted as saying: “The PM thinks we’ve got to take the public with us on this. You can’t impose on people.” 

Out the window: Smyth hears low-traffic neighborhoods will be banned and, as Gove suggested in his Telegraph interview on Sunday, landlords given longer to meet energy efficiency targets. Ministers are also said to be considering an “Aston Martin” exemption, allowing small car manufacturers more time to convert to electric before the 2030 deadline for ending sales of petrol vehicles. But Sunak won’t push back the government’s 2050 net-zero goal. So that’s OK.

More where that came from: On a similar note, the Mail’s Martin Beckford hears the £118 hydrogen levy on fuel bills will be dumped, that the proposed packaging tax on retailers is under review, and measures are likely to block rules which halt housing developments which add to river pollution. He also reports Tory backbenchers are pushing for a delay to the 2030 petrol car moratorium, and for the ban on gas boilers to be pushed back from its proposed introduction in 2035. 

Maxing out: In another clear line with Labour, after Keir Starmer said his party would halt new North Sea oil and gas development, Energy Secretary Grant Shapps told the FT the government would “max out” remaining reserves.


THE BIG C: Chancellor Jeremy Hunt describes his own brush with skin cancer and tells how the disease has affected his family in an unusually personal interview with the Mail. The paper splashes the story. Read it here.

SWISS ROLL: After the Sunday Times excitedly claimed European yoofs may be invited to apply for work visas to sign on as baristas and au pairs as part of a new, post-Brexit reciprocal arrangement, a government insider insisted to my colleague Annabelle Dickson that approaches had so far only been made to the Swiss authorities. The Telegraph hears the same. Luckily Swiss teens generally make a lovely cuppa and are fantastic with children.

BANK ON IT: Economic Secretary to the Treasury Andrew Griffith will write to summon Britain’s biggest banks to a meeting over concerns about Nigel Farage’s Coutts account being closed — the Guardian has further details.

BLOOD TIES: Relatives of victims of the NHS infected blood scandal will deliver a letter to Downing Street telling Rishi Sunak “action is needed now” to set up a body to provide full compensation. The prime minister appears before the Infected Blood Inquiry on Wednesday, with Jeremy Hunt there on Friday and Paymaster General Jeremy Quin on Tuesday. Commons leader Penny Mordaunt gives evidence today from 10 a.m. — the Independent has a write-up.

WAITING FOR GP-O: One in six GP appointments over the past year involved waits of two weeks or more, Lib Dem-commissioned House of Commons Library research found.

BOTTOMS UP: Single Malt Welsh Whisky has been registered under the U.K. Geographical Indication scheme, protecting its name, authenticity and characteristics.

NOT IN WESTMINSTER BUT: The Institute for Government holds an event at the Darlington Economic Campus, examining how the campus has changed the way policy is made, with speakers including Parliamentary Secretary for the Treasury Joanna Penn from 12.45 p.m.


HOUSE OF LORDS: Sits from 2.30 p.m. with the introduction of former Boris Johnson SpAd Charlotte Owen and Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen followed by oral questions on revisions to the Cabinet Manual, replacing ammunition given to Ukraine and the U.K.’s digital economy agreements with other countries … and then the main business is a debate on the development of advanced artificial intelligence, a short debate on the housing crisis in rural and coastal communities and a debate on government preparations for adapting to the impacts of climate change.


ROUTE TO INDEPENDENCE PART 94: Scottish First Minister Humza Yousaf will unveil another taxpayer-funded report on Scottish independence days after Cabinet Secretary Simon Case announced he was considering a crackdown. The Telegraph has more.

SPANIARDS DECIDE: Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez is likely to remain in office after an inconclusive national election in which the center-right Popular Party won the most votes but had no clear path to form a government. My POLITICO colleague Aitor Hernández-Morales has further details.

MOVE TO THE RIGHT: Friedrich Merz, the leader of Germany’s center-right opposition — the Christian Democratic Union — said his party may consider working with the far right at municipal level, drawing criticism. POLITICO’s Hans von der Burchard has more.

RUSSIAN STRIKES: Russia’s strike on Odesa cathedral was widely condemned. Myroslav Vdodovych, the cathedral’s chief priest, declared: “This is barbarism, it’s terrorism. The people who did this are not people at all.” POLITICO has a write-up.

Battlefield update: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Ukraine has “already taken back about 50 percent” of the territory initially seized by Russia. In an interview with CNN on Sunday, Blinken said Kyiv faced “a very hard fight” to win back more land, and the counteroffensive against Russia would continue for “several months.”

Chinese firms send military equipment to Russia: Millions of dollars-worth of Chinese equipment ranging from body armor to drones is popping up on the Russian market, an exclusive POLITICO investigation shows.

TURKISH DELIGHT: Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick is heading to Turkey to discuss organized immigration crime and illegal migration with Turkish ministers.

OVER IN ISRAEL: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will attend a key judicial reform vote after an unscheduled pacemaker implant and hospital stay over the weekend. Reuters has further information.

**A message from Lloyds Banking Group: Hundreds of thousands of people are trapped in homelessness or living in poor quality homes. That’s why we’re calling for one million new and genuinely affordable homes to be built over the next decade and be made available to those on the lowest incomes, with a focus on supporting people at risk of, and experiencing homelessness. This comes as our survey of 7,000 UK adults conducted by YouGov found that almost three quarters (73%) of the British public want to see more social homes built – provided by councils or housing associations – at reduced rents for people on low incomes. Find out more about why this is so important to us here.**


Development Minister Andrew Mitchell broadcast round: Times Radio (7.05 a.m.) … Sky News (7.20 a.m.) … BBC Breakfast (7.30 a.m.) … LBC (7.50 a.m.) … Today program (8.10 a.m.) … GB News (8.45 a.m.).

Also on Times Radio Breakfast: Vue founder and CEO Tim Richards (7.20 a.m.) … Tory MP Craig Mackinlay (8.05 a.m.) … Emergency planning adviser Lucy Easthope (8.15…

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