Local Lib Dems can restore people’s trust in housebuilding

I live in a ward represented by four Lib Dem councillors, where there are 3,952 new homes (out of ∼5,200 homes in the ward), primarily built due to local plans written by the then Lib Dem-led council. However, in 1,800 conversations on the doorstep in the ward, (thanks connect), only one has contained objections to the scale of housebuilding. I’m not claiming that NIMBYism does not exist, just that it’s a much less prevalent view than stereotypes would suggest and that there is a consensus that the development has improved our area.

After all, this is an affluent, suburban ward, which was gained from the Conservatives, where stereotypes, especially those based on all parties’ campaign literature (including ours), would suggest that NIMBYism would be a popular if not prevalent view.  So why is this not the case here? In real terms, the answer to that is that the development has allowed the local GP surgery to move out of a portacabin to a new and more suitable location, and also, where there was one local primary school, there are now three local primary schools and a secondary school. Also, there’s a new cafe, library, community centre, parks, etc. and even though there are things that could have definitely been done better the broad consensus about the positive impacts of the development remains strong.

Though sadly, the Lib Dems lost control of my local council during the coalition years, (housebuilding rates have declined since), similar development is now taking place neighbouring Lib Dem run South Cambridgeshire. They have both started and completed over 4,000 homes in their first term (significantly more than before Lib Dems took control) and are now putting in place a local plan containing tens of thousands more (∼58,000).

This all means that I get to be part of a local team (and its predecessors over the last 20 years) of which I can be proud, not a universal experience among Young Liberals to whom the housing crisis is very present.  This is a local team that has done a lot for just one ward to tackle the housing crisis (go read  Janey Little’s excellent article on that if you haven’t) and has made an appreciable difference to local public services including on things that Lib Dems campaign on elsewhere – GP appointment availability, the condition of school buildings, lack of local amenities, affordable housing.

Lib Dems often proudly claim that they are the best party of local government and there is data supporting the claim that Lib Dem-led and run councils, on average, outperform others. However, to continue to earn this status, we cannot be missing opportunities to improve public services, especially during austerity, when they are unusually weak, and address the housing shortage, a significant cause of the cost of living crisis, which is beneficial to no local community.

The party’s housing policy will be decided at the upcoming September 2023 conference. The policy paper presented is a mixed bag of good proposals (higher building standards) and absurd assertions (lack of supply isn’t the main cause of the housing crisis). I am putting forward an amendment so that all local Lib Dems across the country have what they need to create pro-development consensus in their communities and restore faith in housebuilding.

To do this we need to:

  1. On the national stage, oppose the Tory plans which will make it near impossible to deliver infrastructure and housing simultaneously, giving into their donors and proposing to replace upfront developer contributions (S106) which provided more than 80% of affordable housing and the GP surgeries, schools etc. mentioned earlier, with a levy that is only raised once houses are built. This would lead to councils having to pay out of pocket for infrastructure, with no guarantee that they will be reimbursed. This leads to development without infrastructure, more NIMBYism and less infrastructure and fewer homes in the long term.
  2. Provide councils with the resources (both in terms of staff and money) they need to get the most out of housebuilding, hold the developers to the account if necessary and create a culture where housebuilding is synonymous with the improvement of the local community and developers know that there is no way out of making contributions to local infrastructure.
  3. Have councillors that show leadership and use development as a tool not just to play their role in solving a national crisis which hurts us all, but also as a tool to improve local communities and as an opportunity to solve many of the problems that they campaign on.

The first two points in my amendment, (please sign here) the third will be determined by the ambition and skill of our councillors.

However, I expect the debate will centre on a national housing target. To me, it is clear that we need one, after all, a problem that is so clearly both local and national requires a local and national response and our belief in accountability means that we must set standards that we are to be judged by. It also helps demonstrate that reasons that we are considered “good” in local government, often by people who don’t know what we stand for nationally also reflect why we are the best party to support at a General Election as well.

Also, any policy that rejuvenates local services, enhances social mobility, and tackles the housing crisis is one that a Liberal should have no problem supporting. It’s up to Lib Dem councillors to show how it can work, and restore faith in housebuilding as a transformative force for local and national improvement – some already are.

* Abrial Jerram is a Lib Dem campaigner in Cambridge.

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  • Lucky fellow. I can assure you that where I am (south coast) the NIMBYs are alive, well, and apoplectic at the prospect of 40 new houses on the edge of our village. Apparently the extra traffic (!) will completely ruin our way of life !

  • Nonconformistradical 8th Sep '23 - 5:39pm

    @Chris Cory
    What’s the current village population? What services (public transport, shop, pub etc.) does it have?
    What sort of houses are planned? Large executive ones? Potential for several cars for each house?
    Are there people who work in and around your village who can’t afford to live there?
    Does the village have a neighbourhood plan?

  • @Nonconformistradical. Village population 3,500 (more of a small town really). Main A road with bus service barely a quarter of a mile away from development. Bus and shops (inc a small Tesco) just over half a mile away. They are nice houses, not ostentatious but 400-600k with the usual “affordable” quota.
    There will inevitably be someone locally who can’t afford to get on the housing ladder, but it’s not a large number compared to larger towns nearby.
    No neigbourhood plan (though there was a housing survey done a few years ago) becuase the parish council (from whom I recently resigned in disgust) are too lazy and useless to do one.
    Hope that helps.

  • Barry Lofty 8th Sep '23 - 6:31pm

    In my opinion much of the planning in the uk leaves a lot the to be desired and has more to do with the “ bottom line” of developers and very little adherence to a well planned local need. I sincerely hope that the recents gains by the Liberal Democrats in the council elections will produce a more sensible and realistic approach to planning matters and give the voters the confidence to continue to vote for the Party!!

  • Catherine Smart 9th Sep '23 - 9:25am

    Well said, Abrial – and thank you.
    We need to get back into control then we can carry on the good work.
    Note to self – done’t get involved in discussions/gossip in the coffee bar and miss the debate at Conference.

  • Nonconformistradical 9th Sep '23 - 10:00am

    @Chris Cory
    “There will inevitably be someone locally who can’t afford to get on the housing ladder, but it’s not a large number compared to larger towns nearby.”
    So those (maybe few) people who work in your patch but who can’t afford to buy or rent in the area where they work don’t count?

    On the issue of a national housing target – it seems to me that such a target, without addressing housing needs in specific areas just aids the major developers in building whereever they want the type of housing which makes them the biggest profits, with no concern for any other factors.

  • @nonconformistradical. You will not be surprised to hear that those making the most fuss about this relatively discreet development are not the local homeless but the folks from the nice roads who don’t want their (semi) rural idyll altered in any way.
    As for your slightly tetchy comment about those who can’t afford to rent/buy and their views counting, well of course everybody’s voice counts but if you are suggesting we can built no new private housing while a single person remains unhoused, we’ll that doesn’t seem a very useful way to proceed.

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