If you back our immigration policy, you should vote to keep a housing target

In 2022, the population of the UK grew by 606,000. In the year ended June 2022, 173,520 new homes were built in England. The mismatch between the two figures is one factor in rising rents.

Our Party – more than any other – is the one which has been happy about immigration. We also have a policy on asylum seekers which would mean we were welcoming more asylum seekers to the country. Given that, it seems quite extraordinary that the Federal Policy Committee is seeking to remove a target for new homes from our policy.

They say that “for the foreseeable future the country will not be able to build the 340,000 homes a year that England needs”, as if this is some immutable law of physics which the Government cannot change. Instead, they propose local targets – but anyone who has been involved with local politics – let alone sits on a Planning Committee as I do – knows the huge opposition that almost any development produces. That doesn’t mean of course that we should support all and every development – they need to be thoroughly and properly considered and there may well be good reasons to object to particular developments – but it does mean we should not be naïve about the challenges of targets. In fact, the Housing Paper says of local targets “in practice, this wouldn’t significantly alter the number of homes built each year”.

The problems of not building enough new homes are obvious – some of them outlined by Janey Little – but it would of course be a great mistake to think this is just about immigration: the Centre for Cities suggests that we are currently short by four million homes, so we need to build even without our population increasing.

Targets by themselves don’t achieve anything – just look at the Tory Government’s (now abandoned) targets – they need to have plans behind of what actually needs to happen. But without a national target there is not the slightest chance of us building enough new homes to satisfy our growing population – or remedy our existing shortfall. A national target will mean that we can focus on the many other issues which need to be addressed if we are to build more homes – from land banking by developers, to training the workers we need.

Those who support our policy on asylum seekers and immigration should vote to continue our policy of a national target for home building.

* Simon McGrath is a councillor in Wimbledon and a member of the board of Liberal Reform.

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34 Comments

  • What population size is sustainable for England or is there no upper limit? Can we really just keep building more homes to house an ever increasing population? I have no problem with having a housing target but that will be a pointless exercise without a target for net migration – otherwise we are merely trying to fill a bath with the plug out, as it were.

  • David Symonds 18th Sep '23 - 11:04am

    Whilst being welcoming and supportive to those settling here, we cannot in all conscience allow the population in the UK to keep rocketing as the threat to the green belt, infrastructure and NHS etc are at risk. We have about 66 plus million for a very small island as it is and we as a country need to think about long term population growth as massive increases are harmful, that is not party politics but common sense. Whilst we of course need more homes to provide for our people, we cannot just concrete everything over and destroy our countryside into the bargain. A balance is needed.

  • Perhaps the reason for “ the huge opposition that almost any development produces” is that not everyone blindly believes even more is better.

    I suggest the author is being “ naïve about the challenges of targets”, I suggest they reread when they have written. There are good reasons why the the idea of of a step change in house building from 173k to 340k pa. is daft, so the only other variable is population growth, which since the 1990s has been driven by unsustainable levels of immigration (of which “asylum seekers” form only a small part).

  • Mary Regnier-Wilson 18th Sep '23 - 12:56pm

    I never expected to see LibDems revert to non evidence based “we’re full” arguments.

    A tiny percentage of our land is built on. And with falling birth rates (also affected by housing) and an ever more elderly population, our economy just will not work without increasing the popular through migration of economically active people.

  • James Bliss 18th Sep '23 - 1:30pm

    Have to echo what Mary has said here, it’s really disappointing and worrying to see libdems go down the road of saying we are too full and using nonsense rhetoric about population size. Not sure how this chimes with our long term goal to rejoin the EU and thus return to freedom of movement alongside as Simon says here our asylum policies.

  • Brandon Masih 18th Sep '23 - 1:31pm

    Can only echo what Mary has said, and what Simon has alluded to in that there is a moral responsibility too for building more housing. For asylum seekers, this would mean we have long term accommodation for them when they do arrive and give security of tenure; and allows us to be more flexible with taking in those fleeing conflict and authoritarianism, as we’ve seen with Ukraine and Hong Kong past couple of years. Obviously a target on housing on its own doesn’t get houses built but again it is an effective signal to local government and for informing national policy on what sort of society we want to build.

  • As someone who is the granddaughter of immigrants and is young and cannot dream of owning a house in the South East where a deposit where I live is around a good £70,000-£80,000, I dismay at a few of the comments which I find extremely akin to the Tories and Reform re: the idea this country is full.

  • Callum Robertson 18th Sep '23 - 1:59pm

    I am gutted that I have to agree with Dan Schmeising (a difficult enough task in of itself). But he hits the nail on the head.

    This “we’re full” mindset is fundamentally against our values.

    When we backed Afghan refugees and our brilliant councils stood together to house them, I was proud. When we did the same for Ukrainian refugees I was proud.

    Councils like Colchester have done transformative work changing lives for Syrian refugees.

    To see members of our own party insinuating we’re full and that the green belt is more important than housing refugees, it makes me embarrassed.

  • Peter Martin 18th Sep '23 - 2:15pm

    I would say part of the reason some of us do have a “we’re full” mindset is that there is an ever increasing economic pull towards the SE of England. We don’t see similar comments to the same extent from Wales and Scotland which have lower population densities.

    It’s really not in anyone’s interest that we all head towards London and the SE.

    It’s only central government which has the fiscal clout to ’tilt-the-table’ in the opposite direction.

    In other words we need more levelling up! In the geographical as well as the social sense.

  • Let’s remember that you don’t have to be a Lib Dem member or supporter to comment on here … perhaps that explains some of the comments above.

    The ‘small country’ comments look particularly misguided for anyone who’s ever spent time in the Netherlands, for example.

    There’s plenty of space in the UK, even if you only look at ‘brownfield’ sites. But in addition to targets, there needs to be a proper debate (& planning, shock horror) about where’s most sensible to build – along with genuine prioritisation of the corresponding infrastructure (schools, health services, leisure etc) that can make development positively attractive at a local level.

  • Steve Trevethan 18th Sep '23 - 2:27pm

    Might the housing problems be, at least in part, due to our unstated national policy of rationing homes by price whilst promoting ever greater wealth disparity?

  • Martin Gray 18th Sep '23 - 2:29pm

    Net migration this has reached 600k + ….If your advocating that a city the size of Bristol should be added to our population every year – good luck with that on the doorstep….If those above would give us a figure what they deem acceptable & manageable , I’m all ears … Nothing to do with the Daily Mail – it’s about being grounded in reality …

  • Mary Regnier-Wilson 18th Sep '23 - 3:26pm

    So we stop migration. Who actually staffs the NHS, or builds the infrastructure when we are a land of elderly retirees trying to work out why their grandchildren aren’t having babies (clue: it’s because they can’t afford to buy a house until they inherit yours)

  • Sandy Smith 18th Sep '23 - 3:28pm

    A little reality is needed in this debate. It is not credible for a political party to have no target for net migration per year but a target for house building per year – without the former, there is absolutely no basis for determining the latter. This is not a “we’re full” argument – just asking that the rate for house building should be set in line with projected population growth. That’s really not an unreasonable request.

  • Mary Regnier-Wilson 18th Sep '23 - 3:29pm

    And we won, and held control of Chelmsford council whilst advocating the building of 10k houses on the edge of a city of 40k houses. If you can’t win without being a nimby it’s your campaign approach that’s wrong

  • The “we’re full” brigade arguing against population growth by immigration should acknowledge that they are therefore arguing that people should work longer and retire later to counter demographic changes. Good luck with that.

    While housing development is often unpopular, we should recognise that a significant reason for that is genuine concern about the impact on local schools, GP surgeries, transport links etc. Our policies on housing should ensure that those concerns are addresses early in the process.

    There are plenty of suitable non-greenbelt sites to build sufficient new housing, and housing developers have banked plenty of them already. But private housing developers are always going to choke supply to levels just below demand to keep prices and profits high, unless we change the system.

  • Martin Gray 18th Sep '23 - 7:18pm

    @Nick….The FPC has rightly understood that the target of 340k houses is unachievable – setting targets is all well and good but they must be realistic in that …
    People are already working longer & retiring later – those at the bottom have no choice as they’ve no private provisions when it comes to pensions ..
    Immigration is in the top three concerns of voters & has been for a considerable time…It will feature heavily in next year’s GE – we will get our answer on the doorstep & it might not be one we like ….

  • William Francis 19th Sep '23 - 9:12am

    Existing problems can be made worse by bad public policy.

    Immigration as a political issue is much less salient now than it was a decade ago, and not much of one amongst Lib Dem voters. The party having a non-reactionary immigration policy has been priced-in by the electorate, and pretending to be like the Tories or Labour has never been a vote winner. Chasing the median voter isn’t how third parties win elections.

    https://yougov.co.uk/topics/society/trackers/the-most-important-issues-facing-the-country

  • William Francis 19th Sep '23 - 9:13am

    @Martin Gray

    Existing problems can be made worse by bad public policy.

    Immigration as a political issue is much less salient now than it was a decade ago, and not much of one amongst Lib Dem voters. The party having a non-reactionary immigration policy has been priced-in by the electorate, and pretending to be like the Tories or Labour has never been a vote winner. Chasing the median voter isn’t how third parties win elections.

    https://yougov.co.uk/topics/society/trackers/the-most-important-issues-facing-the-country

  • I don’t see this as a “we’re full” argument. It is a common sense position.

    Every single family that moves to the uk means one extra house/home needs to be built.

    To pretend otherwise is intellectually dishonest and insulting the electorates intelligence.

    That is not blaming anyone it is a pure statement of fact.

  • There’s a strong element of optics to consider here, quite apart from the dubious merits of FPC seeking to overturn a housing policy set by *checks notes* FPC as recently as 2021.

    The basic rule of optics is that “how things actually are doesn’t matter as much as how they look.” In this case the vast majority of young people will see the headlines “Lib Dems vote to scrap house building targets” and conclude that we aren’t a party they can support. We saw this with Tuition Fees as well – the actual merits of the policy didn’t matter a jot, it was the headlines that hung us. And in this case, however good the underlying policy is, it won’t matter if the headline is enough to turn people off us.

    A retained housing target can be finessed to work alongside the other policy objectives we have (and in fairness to FPC, much of the rest of the proposed housing policy deserves to pass unamended). However, if we drop the housing target, the optics will hang us regardless of how much finessing we do – to coin a phrase, “if you’re having to explain, you’ve already lost.”

    We drop the target at our peril.

  • @William….. Immigration ranks third, & has been in the top three for a considerable time…
    How do third parties win elections – as we’re hovering just above double digits in the polls…?

  • As far as I can see *noone* in this thread has claimed that the UK is full. Yet there are a large number of comments attacking a ‘we’re full’ argument that no-one has made. Rather what some people have correctly pointed out is that the higher immigration is, the more houses need to be built, and that it is undesirable to keep destroying our green spaces.

    There are pros and cons of immigration. The pros include the freedom of people to live where they want, the need to help asylum seekers, and possibly economic benefits. The cons include the pressure on infrastructure and housing, and that too high an immigration rate can be destabilising to established communities. An honest debate needs to recognise both sides. It really doesn’t help sensible debate when those who support high immigration start throwing around comments like “wouldn’t be out of place in the Daily Mail” or “The “we’re full” brigade” at those who point out the cons. Can’t we argue on the merits of the issues instead of throwing those kinds of smears around?

  • @Simon R – agree, people really have to acknowledge there are real limits to growth and by all sensible measures we are way beyond many.
    We want a sustainable society, we want to achieve our climate change obligations etc.
    Yet at the same time we want more people and more consumption with no change in our behaviours and society; something has to give…

  • @ Nick Baird – “should acknowledge that they are therefore arguing that people should work longer and retire later to counter demographic changes.”

    We already are, the changes to the retirement age started back in the mid 1980s.
    I am a little surprised the retirement age was only lifted to 68 and not 70. The overall effect of the change effected is to increase the working population by circa 25%. So all things being equal this on its own will result in a small annual increase in GDP for the next decade.

    The real problem with the “baby boomer” generation is that the data is readily available, so we’ve been able to model it for decades and thus develop a strategy and delivery plan. Hence today we should be able to point at what level of additional workers is needed. But as we have seen with doctors, nurses, lorry drivers etc. why forecast, plan and measure when you can leave it to “market forces”; muddling through seems to be institutionalised part of the little Englander mindset.

  • @Roland – I’d be curious to see your workings when you say that raising the retirement age from 65 to 68 increases the working population by 25%? The UK’s workforce is smaller now than it was in 2020 when it was first raised to 66.

  • David Sheppard 19th Sep '23 - 6:48pm

    With sheer numbers of people living longer… much longer… we don’t have enough houses as it is, we should insist on Brownfield and Town centre housing targets. The targets should be for a massive amount of affordable green homes first. People have the right to expect shelter to be provided for them as Liberals we cant turn our back on young people. We can protect the greenbelt and provide thousands of green homes if we choose to do that.

  • Added to the pressures Simon outlines is the effect of decants due to large-scale regeneration and demolition in places like my old ward in Southwark.

  • What do people mean by ‘target’?

    If it’s ‘aspiration’, then fine – but say aspiration.

    But too often, targets are an instruction, “You MUST achieve X”. That was the sense that Thatcher used when she introduced targets into the political mainstream in the latish 1980s.

    It was an approach that perfectly fitted Thatcher’s top-down approach; a way of reaching over the heads of the resistant blob of civil service obstructionism (as she would have seen it) to insist that X is achieved. This interpretation of ‘target’ later appealed to Blair because he too had top-down instincts.

    The difficulty is, as Simon McGrath says, that saying X must be so doesn’t make it doable unless there is a plan behind it. Unfortunately, in the political universe soundbites is more important that delivery so targets are routinely deployed with nothing behind them – after all the minister will probably have moved on before anything hits the fan.

    Housing targets are a case in point with multiple bottlenecks. Land availability is one, but skill shortages are a far, far bigger problem. Immigration rules for some building trades are being relaxed in what also looks like a bid to suppress wages. No wonder so many supported Brexit!

    https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/brexit-eu-immigration-builders-construction-b2297207.html

    We ‘invest’ massively in education and skills but much of it is obviously ‘malinvestment’ (unproductive investment) because it’s driven by top-down targets like Blair’s 50% to university. LibDems really should be offering a bottom-up, needs-driven alternative.

  • @Nick – the figure (from memory) comes from the 1980s when the raising of women’s retirement age from 60 to that of men and the raising of the age to 68. So the figure was based on the mid 1980s working population, where keeping the bulge generation working longer would have a greater impact.

    I suspect what I have overlooked or forgotten is that the 1980s data probably assumed a much earlier implementation date than the one ultimately achieved…

    Which again shows that for something so fundamental to our society in terms of housing, care etc it is madness that the government doesn’t seem to be tracking and regularly reporting on this, which in turn would lead to a more informed population policy…

  • @ John Grout re “optics”
    This is a well made point, which I think @Gordon has picked up on. It reminds me of previous discussions around “framing” on LDV.

    I suggest having a simple headline figure isn’t helpful, having a target for social housing or affordable family homes etc. is. Which would allow for policies that target real need – something the people of Chelmsford will be expecting for those 10k additional homes, rather than at present a developer can for example propose to build 70 “executive homes” (*) and if the council are willing to donate part of the adjacent public space/playing field 10 “social housing units”. (The idiots will shout NIMBY, but we successfully got this development denied.)

    (*)Think greater than two times the price of existing 3~4 bedroom family homes in the local area.

  • Peter Hirst 9th Oct '23 - 4:55pm

    If we have no houses for immigrants what do we do. Build more houses or refuse entry? Similar arguments could be raised concerning education and health services. We could make better use of our housing stock by incentivising moving to smaller dwellings. The choice between disposable income and house size is becoming more apparent to many.

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