John Pugh MP writes: Getting Back on Track

Railway trackLooking at the wreckage of our electoral hopes, the defeat of MPs of massive talent and commitment who have served their constituencies well, it is hard for all of us not to feel angry. A lot of that anger spills through in the post hoc analysis as we seek to distribute blame and identify the critical errors made.

I suspect that in years to come people will still argue about what went wrong and when, but certainly at the moment its all too raw to arrive at objective,dispassionate conclusions that all will accept.

In my view we ploughed on for years through signals set at danger and I for one have done my share of shouting at the drivers but I do not for one moment think that entirely explains the crash or the large number of casualties. Surveying the electoral carnage I am sure a major contributory factor was the election of Ed Miliband on September 25th 2010 – an event no-one in our party is responsible for.

I like Ed Miliband but he was unelectable as PM and did nothing to make his party more so. Fear of Ed, possibly bolstered by the SNP, was what did it and again like in 2010 ,where we had to choose between the Tories and a re-run election, we were caught in a horrible trap with no good choices.

We, even when we saw the danger, could not rule out a deal with Labour. The one clear option to avoid any nightmare Ed/SNP scenario was to vote Tory and that was what droves of people did. Ironically it helped that coalition government had partially de-toxified the Tory brand.

But for that Vince Cable, Steve Web and many other talented colleagues who ran stupendous campaigns would be gracing the green benches again. I have an abiding memory of an away day when after a long session on electoral strategy and tactics Ed Davey raised a point no-one had previously answered. “What plans”, he said , “have we got to deal with the big last minute scare ?”. We agreed we must think about that.

There is no point in railing against the hand fate deals with you. The measure of us as a party is how we now deal with it. Can I venture a few suggestions?

We must build bridges across the party, bring back exiles, embrace tolerance, avoid factionalism. We all need to get the party back on the tracks not fight over whose hands are on the wheel.

Shorn of so many talented MPs, the parliamentary party must prioritise ruthlessly on areas that move Liberal hearts not seek to cover all departments of state.

The talent available to us in our significant contingent in the Lords must be used more effectively in parliament, in the country, in the media and to support the MPs

Equally we must not allow the huge array of defeated candidates, MPs and young staffers who worked so hard for so little return to slip away unnoticed. They will have to earn a living but they can help re-build the party while re-building their lives. You don’t need a parliamentary pass to make a huge impact and perhaps we have forgotten that.

Finally we must set ourselves some short term goals- first of which which should be the 2016 local elections when the nonsense that is the Tory programme for government will be starting to unravel.When we are not fighting an air war ruthless effective targeting resulting in success on the ground is the key. Our success here will be the rebirth of our credibility and confidence.

* John Pugh was Liberal Democrat MP for Southport until 2017 and was elected as a Councillor for the Dukes ward of Sefton Borough Council on 2 November 2017.

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  • Ron Stafford 12th May '15 - 10:15am


    You make some valid points but may I suggest one area we can react to now, and that is the snooper’s charter.
    2016 is fine in the longer term but we have an opportunity for the parliamentarians to say something now. Not in a “we told you so” mode but in a ” we are still defending Liberty” one. That way we can be seen to be active to the public and move away from the woe is me position. (Stealing Julian’s notes might help😀.)

  • Bill le Breton 12th May '15 - 10:20am

    John, congratulations to you and your team on a fine result and for this measured contribution above.

    History should remember your anecdote about Ed’s question, ““What plans have we got to deal with the big last minute scare ?”.

  • Jane Ann Liston 12th May '15 - 10:27am

    ‘Finally we must set ourselves some short term goals- first of which which should be the 2016 local elections…’

    What about the small matter of the Scottish elections, Mr Pugh? Surely you are not writing them off?

  • ………………………………………. I like Ed Miliband but he was unelectable as PM and did nothing to make his party more so. Fear of Ed, possibly bolstered by the SNP, was what did it and again like in 2010 ,where we had to choose between the Tories and a re-run election, we were caught in a horrible trap with no good choices…………………………We, even when we saw the danger, could not rule out a deal with Labour. The one clear option to avoid any nightmare Ed/SNP scenario was to vote Tory and that was what droves of people did. Ironically it helped that coalition government had partially de-toxified the Tory brand………………………

    Why was ‘Ed’ unelectable as a PM? Could it have been the years of smears, personal attacks and outright lies by a mainly Tory media? If so it is a sad reflection on the power of n unregulated media and the gullibility of its ‘audience’…
    So, Ed didn’t eat a bacon sandwich well, but neither did he go home and leave his child in a pub. His father may have been scathing about anti-Semitism in war torn Britain (although it didn’t stop him serving in the RN) but he didn’t make the family fortune through tax avoidance.

    As for the ‘nightmare’ Lab/SNP deal; why was it a nightmare? The months of anti Scots rhetoric by CCHQ will have done more to destroy the ‘Union’ than any concessions (real or imaginary) by Labour to the SNP….

  • From what I have seen so far – I doubt that a simple ‘love of the Party’ will see it through – but the internecine wars will continue until their obvious conclusion.

    It seems to me that a single shared external objective – that can bind all members together – is what is required at this juncture.

    I have offered Federalism – which does not seem popular – is there another?

  • Three excellent points, amongst many:

    – We must build bridges across the party, bring back exiles, embrace tolerance, avoid factionalism. We all need to get the party back on the tracks not fight over whose hands are on the wheel.
    – Shorn of so many talented MPs, the parliamentary party must prioritise ruthlessly on areas that move Liberal hearts not seek to cover all departments of state.
    – The talent available to us in our significant contingent in the Lords must be used more effectively in parliament, in the country, in the media and to support the MPs

    If I am, we can boil these down to:

    – No infighting
    – Be Liberal
    – Support MPs

    These are important watch words and ones I will to my upmost to uphold.

  • Bill le Breton 12th May '15 - 10:59am

    It may sound counter intuitive but:

    a) the issue or issues that we should campaign on NOW, immediately, without waiting for a leadership contest, should be ones that inspire activists, even if they appear at first to have less traction with the general public. If you can imagine how much our new members have been energized by events, then, just imagine the energy that could be provided by those activists provided they ‘like’ the campaign issue. Think very local, quite small scale.

    b) it is not for the ‘centre’ to choose the issue/s, but it is for a well resourced organisation to prepare a number of campaigns and to stand back and watch which of them are taken up by those activists, and then to resource those campaigns and to integrate them into complementary action by MPs and Peers across the nations.

    Trust me – I am a spin doctor 😉 That is to say, this is exactly what a few of us did in the summer of 1989.

  • Nigel Cheeseman 12th May '15 - 11:13am

    None of this is controversial, in my view. The Scottish parliament elections and the local elections south of the border are not far off. John Pugh has been critical of our strategy all along and he has been proved right.

    I think there was a flaw inherent in our longer term strategy, for which Nick Clegg , the negotiating team, Orange Bookers or whatever were not responsible. That was our belief that the holy grail was a hung parliament in which we would be power brokers. Even during this campaign, that was still the objective, despite the proof, never mind evidence, that it was destructive to our aims.

    Now that electoral reform is most certainly of the agenda for the foreseeable future, we must concentrate our efforts long term towards becoming a governing party in our own right. It is terrible to think what position we might have been in now, had we kept our powder dry and avoided coalition. What ifs do not help us now. We can learn from history by not making the same mistakes.

  • Nigel Cheeseman 12th May '15 - 11:15am

    Clearly, “off the agenda”. Sorry for typo.

  • What a great article, summed my views up entirely. Thanks John.

    Bill le Breton – Doesn’t sound counter intuitive at all chap. Here in Tatton we’ve had a 30% increase in members – and they’ve come to us with clear burning issues, voting reform, palestine and devolution being near the top.

    I’d suggest we kick off these campaigns asap and like you say see what take up we get from our activists. Back to our roots as a campaigning party.

    Chilcott could be a good one on the horizon too…

  • It is always a pleasure to get a reasoned and cogent piece from John. Too many chose not to listen to him in the past, but he has got on with his job and is a credit to us all. As he says “We must build bridges across the party, bring back exiles, embrace tolerance, avoid factionalism.” Anything else would be a disservice to all those who worked so hard for so many decades to get our generation to the place where we had a chance. We must do the same for future generations.

  • Eddie Sammon 12th May '15 - 12:01pm

    This is good and I proudly voted for John, but after I saw the Lib Dem manifesto I stopped telling my friends and family to vote Lib Dem. Most people won’t vote for something that is clearly against their self-interest and I thought the package of new taxes and regulations were. I thought it was bad for the country too. It wasn’t just narrow selfishness.

    John’s point on tolerance is also very important. I don’t really care who someone votes for, as long as it is not the BNP.

    The only part I would disagree with would be to prioritise ruthlessly on areas that move liberal hearts. I thought the national campaign was getting a bit obsessed with education and managed to start with that department and end with it, whilst missing out entire other departments. I want someone who can offer something for everyone.

  • Helen Tedcastle 12th May '15 - 12:03pm

    A very good piece from John Pugh. It seems that fear is the decisive factor in driving people to vote Tory in England – fear of ‘Red Ed’ and the SNP.

    Actually I thought Labour’s manifesto wasn’t all that left-wing except in a couple of areas eg: energy price and rent freezing.

    It was pretty Blairite in places, most notably Education.

    It was obviously a perception stoked by the Tories and not countermanded by Labour effectively enough.

    For our part, I could not quite pin down what we stood for apart from we’ll stop a veering to the left or the right by the other parties. So what, seemed to be the reply from the electorate.

    I think that in addition to factoring in Miliband, we need to have a long and very hard look at our own national campaign messaging and strategy.

  • Stephen Hesketh 12th May '15 - 12:46pm

    John’s quote that remains with me was his, “Although I admire enormously Nick’s bravery, it does not follow that because the captain should go down with the ship that the ship has to go down with the captain,”

    Regarding hands on the wheel, it is absolutely vital that future captains understand and reflect the direction in which the passengers and crew have booked to travel. This former leader and his inner circle forgot this to be a collaborative democratic venture and not an elected dictatorship.

  • Stephen Hesketh 12th May '15 - 12:48pm

    ‘The’ not ‘this’ former leader!

  • I am not sure if Labour’s policies were wrong, it was the narrative that has build up around them by the Tory press that defeated them. Raising tax on the rich and nationalisation are well recieved by voters individually

    As for us, moderation and centerism can also result in radicalism but we failed to show that in 2015. If our main role is to moderate other parties there is no chance that we can differentiate ourselves and offer people a reason to vote for us. We can certainly build on some of the work done in coalition in schooling for example; education is always a good area to focus on and perhaps we can generate some unique ideas around that which enthuses voters (and yes that includes higher education, we need to adress the tution fees issue head on) Other areas like justice were a major let down for a Liberal coalition, legal aid, secret courts etc, we need to restore our liberal values to the party.

    Other ideas can include perhaps simplfying the tax system by ending national insurance, merging it with income tax? Providing aid for small buisness while going after tax avoiders, real changes

    Most of all we need a dynamic narrative to build upon of what we aim to represent. Sure the 3rd party position in UK politics is now a little crowded but I am confident that of all the visions ours can resonate with the most people.

  • paul barker 12th May '15 - 1:06pm

    Excellent article; I have to admit to having posted intemperate comments on LDV, I hope they were moderated. Lets be as nice to each other as we can & where we cant, say nothing.

  • Bill is right you have been here in both 1970 and 1989 and on both occassions thinking small and thinking local was the key to recovery. You have to start to change the culture of lossing seats which has gone on unintertupted since 2011 and so it’s vital that you start turn all these new members into active members asap and identify where victories can be achieved in 2016.

  • Thought this was a great article.
    Agreed with the interesting point “Ironically it helped that coalition government had partially de-toxified the Tory brand.”
    I suspect this Tory government will become unpopular very very quickly. They only had 37% of the vote – and some of that was probably somewhat unwilling. So yes, we need to ready to step right in there!
    Also agree with concentrating on the big issues – IMHO one of things that Lib Dems struggle with is knowing what they stand for (or WHO they stand for). I originally joined because I just liked the fact they weren’t left or right. But now I can see that they can stand for Freedom, Europe, and the environment. I guess we need to take a leaf from the coalitions book and think now about what message we are going to hammer home, for ever and ever, until 2020?
    2020 will come sooner than we think…

  • @Bill le Bretton

    As someone in a similar line of work, fully agree – we need a campaign to rally around and soon.

    We need to focus on something::

    a) which is close to our values
    b) on which we can provide a distinct, Liberal voice
    c) which will not cause divison between Tim and Norman
    d) of interest to non-card carrying Liberals as well

    I suggest one of three:

    1) Housing and 2) mental health are causes close to both Tim and Norman and I have not heard a peep from the new Government about.

    Perhpas 3) Chilcot? Reminds people of our past and when we garnered greater levels of support – when it comes to Iraq, truth to power, abuse of government power, liberty etc we really do have a unique and important voice.

    Feel these three issues would also fit with John’s excellent anaylsis of what we do next.

  • Bill le Breton 12th May '15 - 2:24pm

    ATF yes those are important but along side them we need to follow Neil’s advice “thinking small and thinking local was the key to recovery.” It’s the Dual Approach that we need to use.

  • David Howarth 12th May '15 - 2:42pm

    Bill: The dual approach wasn’t just about local and small. It applies to every community we find ourselves in. The point is to get something changed – that’s what empowers people. It can surely apply at national level as well,
    The snoopers’ charter seems to fit the bill. There is at least a chance of succeeding (and probably a higher chance than the campaigns I used to run to get pelican crossings at crossroads!)

  • Bill le Breton – Yes, think you are both right on that one.

    More generally, can’t help but feel positive about the future – all the ideas going round the party, the membership increase etc. That fighting spirit is coming back!

  • I think the Lib Dems as a whole need to reassert their core values and all the local FOCUS leaflets need to do that as well as campaigning locally. We need to show that we cannot be defined by the tired old left-right line, but are a distinctive force, and definitely not a “centre party” even if we may have sensible non-extreme views on many issues.

    So once we have a new leader I would take the unusual step of delivering (outside an election) a national leaflet in as many places as possible with a value-based message. And that the difficult period of coalition, where we sacrificed party interests for the good of the country, is behind us now and we are looking forward to putting truly Liberal ideas into practice at all levels in politics

  • There are so many areas that we can make ourselves distinctive
    1. Environment / Climate – fight for renewable energy and show we achieved this whilst in office. we can take the Greens head on and show the shambles of Brighton Council failing to achieve even modest recycling targets
    2. NHS / Education – revisit the 1p tax policy for NHS / Education
    3. Small Business – reduce employers NI to 10% for small businesses
    4. Electoral Reform – we should be the champions of this and push for a form of PR for local elections
    5. Students – the big sorry is not enough. We need action to win this block back Look at not just tuition fees but living costs for students. Tackle universities head on about their exorbitant fees
    6. Council Tax Reform – increase the upper bands
    7. National Insurance – this needs reform This is stealth tax
    8. Dividend payments abroad to avoid UK tax – there should be a 40% withholding tax on these payments.
    9. Royalty payments by companies like Starbucks / Google etc – this needs to be reformed
    10. Civil Liberties – once again we need to be the champion of civil liberties at the forefront of all campaigns

    There are many areas we can identify unique policies that we can champion as liberal policies and ideals.

  • Bill le Breton 12th May ’15 – 10:20am
    “……John, congratulations to you and your team on a fine result and for this measured contribution above.
    should remember your anecdote about Ed’s question,
    ““What plans have we got to deal with the big last minute scare ?”.”

    One thing only to add to Bill’s comment–
    Thank you, John Pugh, for speaking out in May 2014 !!!
    If other MPs had listened to you or spoken out as well they might still be MPs today and we might not have suffered so many lost deposits as well as an unprecedented number of humiliating fifth and sixth places for our candidates.

  • @ Bill Le Breton, Neil
    “thinking small and thinking local was the key to recovery.”
    Some small activities that can be energising,, locally organised and are currently emerging without much political support (although I imagine many Lib Dems, Greens and Labs involved on personal level).
    1. Energy – community energy projects (local control and investment), local initiatives for house installation and mciro-generation.
    2. Environment – Re-wilding . A truly big idea gaining traction in Europe, but little activity here. (I recommend Monbiot’s ‘Feral’, a truly inspirational look at how we can restore nature not just defend what little is left ).
    3. Local Economics – micro banking, Social enterprises, , peer-to-peer lending, localised economic structures (No doubt David Boyle has written loads on this. Philip Blond’s ideas are also worth a look.
    4. Food and consumers – Farmer’s and artisan markets, Community Orchards / allotments, high street renewal -countering the spread of the ‘clone’ towns.

  • We must avoid turning the clock back to a mythical golden age either by design or simply because it’s the easy and familiar default setting. In the ‘good old days’ we only got in the low- mid 20%s in general elections and that only by dint of skilful tactical manoeuvres and by garnering the ‘none-of-the-above’ protest vote. With a weaker starting position and more competition that’s going to be far more difficult than previously.

    So, while I agree with Bill le Breton and others about the need for quick wins, I also think there is a whole extra dimension we should attack on. For well over a generation the Conservative’s neo-liberal thinking has dominated political analysis. Neither New Labour or orange book liberals have come up with anything materially different so even the language we use has been made over into a Conservative paradigm. In the long term policy prescriptions flow from that so we are fighting an uphill – and ultimately doomed – battle.

    While this is a problem it is also an opportunity. It’s painfully obvious that neo-liberal thinking is past its sell-by date with mounting economic problems (despite the Tory’s election spin) and widespread disenchantment with politicians and the Westminster bubble. The party that comes up with a narrative that people identify with is going to reap a huge windfall of votes very quickly. Voters must say to themselves, “They’re saying just what I was thinking” and “Oh right! That makes a lot of sense”. If they identify at that level they will take the policy prescriptions on trust and the votes will follow.

    Naturally, I think that the missing analysis is essentially a liberal one so we start with an advantage; we just have to pick it up. The practical difficulty is that the party’s official policy-making process can’t do this or it would have done so long ago. In fact, I think it’s really quite badly broken. However, I have long believed that, just as volunteer activists have proved wonderfully effective at community politics, so there is another group of citizen activists who could take this on given modest encouragement. And, at a time when physical resources are likely to be under great strain, that may be the only way to do it.

  • Jane Ann Liston 12th May '15 - 9:49pm

    Here are some policies I’d like to see the party adopt:

    I’d like to see us go back to working towards a Citizen’s Income policy, which I see the Greens have nabbed.

    In the meantime, assess benefits per person, like tax, rather than per household, which makes assumptions about how money is shared that might not be true.

    Make petrol & diesel a universal service, i.e. sold at the same price from the Scillies to Shetland. Ideally, it should be cheapest where there are no public transport alternatives and dearest where there are plenty (the opposite of what we have now), but I believe that European legislation won’t allow that, although it would permit the universal service.

    And stop clawing back bed & board costs from the damages awarded to those wrongfully imprisoned; that’s just mean! It’s not as though they wanted to be guests of HM Queen; such innocent people objected mightily to being jailed but their protests were ignored.

  • I don’t think there is sufficient internal honesty to accept that in many parts of the North and North West the party has all but disappeared that is why we have to start small and rebuild. There are dozens of local authorities that no longer have any Lib Dem voice and that has to be addressed. Just as it had to be addressed in 1970 and 1989, I am sure the road back will be quicker this time but currently the Liberal voice is no longer relevant on the wider stage. This will change but first we have to get back to a mentality both internally and in the publics mind of actually winning elections. Thus we have to start small and achieve.

  • On the environment we should be championing the efforts of companies like Unilever and ideas like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation circular economy

    And of course Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful” What could be more Liberal than that?

    I see these ideas as mainstream liberalism and a big contrast to the neo-communist approach of the Green Party (for the tiny minority of voters who have any idea what the Green Party now stands for!)

  • Whilst, I do not agree with everything, this is a good article, which does the rare and important thing of offering solutions and next steps, rather just highlighting problems.

  • @ Fred Brake
    A penny on Income Tax for education worked for us in the past, so yes education has to be kept as a priority area.

    The merging of National Insurance and Income Tax should become party policy. If we had been saying we would take people out of National Insurance as well as Income Tax we would have had a different policy to the Tories, but it was rejected by the leadership.

    We should have policies to help small businesses. I would also like some policies to encourage employers to employ people, maybe the employer pays no National Insurance on their first two employees and only half on the next two.

    I wonder if people would like the idea of a penny on Income Tax for the NHS?

    @ Jane Ann Liston
    I too would like us to return to our negative income tax policy or forward to a Citizens Income. We could start by using it to replace the personal tax allowance. Moving towards individual benefits and not households seems a good idea and a Citizens Income could be the method used.

  • Nigel Quinton 13th May '15 - 9:01am

    Panicos, very much agreed with your post and was just about to mention Schumacher when Andrew did it for me! Liked what David Sea said too.

    Re Green bashing, though, I take a different view. Just as it did Labour no good to rubbish the LibDems, I would say the same for the greens and the LibDems. We should support their stance on things we agree on, and not seek to alienate, as we need their votes, and should collaborate as much as we can. The view of the Greens as ‘communist’ is also outdated. Left of centre yes, but many of their leading figures could have been comfortable in the pre-Clegg LibDems.

    I know some will say that the Greens are impossible to work with but if we mean what we say about inclusivity and working across party lines, something I really believe in, then we have to try. Tribalism is neither effective nor edifying.

  • Jeremy Morfey 13th May '15 - 9:02am

    So when are you standing for the leadership?

    If you were elected leader, I’d rejoin the party.

  • Jeremy Morfey

    Nobody ever mentions him as a possible leader, not sure why. I’ve always thought him impressive when I’ve seen him on TV. Perhaps he should stand for deputy leader as I think Farron has the leaders job in the bag.

  • Bill le Breton 13th May '15 - 9:43am

    May I thank David Sea – these are exactly the type of ideas I was hoping for: I suppose the acid test for what I was looking for is, “is it credible that Jane and Joe in a community cd start a campaign for something and win both local backing and possible change in a local policy.

    The temptation to go for larger campaigns is considerable, but the ones that really work are those which people (in their communities) feel there is a good chance can be achieved by someone acting in their community. which is why Panicos and Andrew are right to point to Schumacher.’s small is beautiful.

    Thanks to Neil for his continuing good sense.

  • Jeremy Morfey 13th May '15 - 10:11am

    Malc – I suspect it is because he is a Roman Catholic, same as I am (although I chose to become one in middle age). Being a social traditionalist, but economically to the Left, flies in the face of conventional US-inspired political theory, which is why they don’t like it.

  • Note the Tories now want to badge themselves up as the party of the blue collar worker.
    Well perhaps we should consider badging our selves up as the party of the green collar workers .We are by nature innovative, committed to renewable energy and green technologies .It still has the potential to be the biggest employment growth area and Is not ‘stifled by old cuctoms and practices closely associated to the Labour party.or the old left.
    It can be community orientated with shares owned by the community and profit sharing lets look forward towards the new politics and not hanker back to the past.

  • SIMON BANKS 13th May '15 - 4:56pm

    A late Tory surge should have been no surprise, for the reasons John identifies – Cameron being more credible as PM than Miliband, a factor that tends to sway the English voters a lot as they get near the big decision; and the scare of Miliband in the pocket of the SNP (Miliband in the pocket of the LIb Dems being no scare at all).

    There really isn’t much we can do about such late scares, except maybe get better at picking up a very late swing during the day and shifting resources where we can. In Colchester in early evening the knocking-up team I was on was finding too many definites and probables canvassed by reliable canvassers were saying they’d voted but not for us. But was Connect showing that as us getting out our vote?

    But our support in our bastions was too soft. I suspect that was because we’d alienated more than half of the people who voted for us in 2010 and were natural Lib Dem voters, so our misleadingly reassuring local poll data was based on people thinking Bob Russell/Stephen Lloyd/Mike Thornton/Lynn Featherstone was nice and a good MP. This is welcome, of course, but too easily crumbled when people feared for the country. Rediscovering and re-attaching our natural voters must be our first task or we could vanish. These are people who believe in fairness and freedom, in civil liberties and protecting the environment, people who are much more pro-diversity than Labour ever can be.

  • Neil Sandison 14th May '15 - 5:59pm

    Tories want to offer HA tenants the right to buy and have come up with a convoluted mechanism to do so .They seem to be unaware that pre 1989 most HA stock had charitable status. There was a good scheme called the transferrable discount which allowed HA tenants with a lump sum to buy on the open market with their old home going back into the social housing pool . A transferable discount has many advantages as it helps to keep the bottom end of the housing market buoyant .If the Tories had half a brain they would re-introduce the transferable discount scheme and encourage those tenants who can afford it to buy new homes or discounted homes to encourage house building where it is needed .At e moment many developers are cutting back on affordable housing within their site on the grounds the development would not be economically viable .Transferable discounts on new homes offer a win win
    vacant social housing for those in need .economically viable affordable housing on new developments.

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