Reflections on the Housing Working Group

We’re in the final hours before conference debates our Housing paper and it’s been good to read the discussion taking place on Lib Dem Voice and elsewhere. I am looking forward to a similar debate in the conference hall on Monday. Liberal Democrat’s really care about housing and we all agree that we need to build more homes, our discussions are about how we best achieve this.

When we started our working group we wanted to achieve two things. To offer a credible housing policy for the Liberal Democrats to show we actually want to build homes, and to help those who don’t have a home to get one and be protected while they’re renting. And I believe we’ve achieved that.

I have led a council that is facing a housing crisis, I’ve seen people trapped in temporary accommodation unable to join the community, I’ve seen people have no choice but to leave their area. People can’t afford to live here in the Lake District and this is hurting our communities and our economy. Too many of the homes that are being built or that come up for sale are being sold into the second homes or holiday lets market and there simply aren’t enough smaller homes for people looking to buy their first home. Without new blood the Lake District will simply become a playground for the super wealthy and its communities and heritage will die.

In South Lakeland, we have built new social housing to help people get on the housing ladder. As leader I introduced a target of 1,000 affordable homes to rent and this has led to more homes being provided.

Across England we build around 8,000 new council homes a year and this number is outstripped by the losses. This is a result of Conservative governments deliberately and cynically seeking to reduce the social housing sector.

A national target for all housing remains a developers charter. It encourages the construction of big expensive homes at the expense of smaller homes that young people actually need. It fails to recognise the differences between areas like mine in South Lakeland and the very different issues in cities like London. It is a policy that has repeatedly failed to actually deliver the homes that we need to see. 

So that’s why we’re changing our approach to house building rather than dropping targets entirely. Instead of setting a national target for all types of homes – that will always be led by developers – we’re setting a target for social homes. These are homes that local and national governments can actually deliver, taking the lead on house building rather than abandoning the stage. And guess what, LIberal Democrat councils across the country are already doing it. 

This target is ambitious – we will go from 8,000 homes a year to 150,000 social homes, a massive increase that will help the most vulnerable. Not only that, but it will help drive down rent prices too. This isn’t backing away from difficult decisions, it’s the opposite; placing the onus on local authorities to actually build more homes. 

And there will be no getting out of building other homes. Instead of top down targets set by Westminster we’ll have binding local targets set by the local authority and approved by the independent Planning Inspectorate. Not like the voluntary target the Tories have left us with.

We took evidence from campaigning organisations and we’ve heard they’re delighted with our target to build social homes. They also recommended new policies to unlock house building too, from reforming the Land Compensation Act and extending introducing new levies on land with planning permission, but not built on. We’re also delighted to receive an amendment that expands these further, encouraging other ways to build more homes, including pilots of Community Land Auctions, previously championed by Ed Davey.

And this paper aims to end NIMBYism too. The vast majority of people don’t oppose all new developments; instead they don’t want their community to be taken advantage of by big developers. So by expanding Neighbourhood Planning and encouraging more engagement with the planning process we bring the majority of people with us, leaving the small minority of true NIMBYs behind. 

I am proud of the work we have done. We have delivered a credible housing policy that will actually deliver the homes we need to see. And I look forward to discussing it with you all next week. 

* Cllr Peter Thornton is a member of the Federal Policy Committee and Deputy Leader of Cumbria County Council and lead member for Finance. He is also a South Lakeland District Councillor. He chaired the Housing Policy Working Group whose paper is being debated at Autumn Conference 2023.

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4 Comments

  • Kieron Franks 24th Sep '23 - 10:48am

    This argument is quite frankly disingenuous and it’s sad to see it being used at Conference to attempt to disenfranchise the Young Liberals from making the party actually work for young people

    1) Building any type of home has been shown to free up cheaper housing further down the chain

    2) There needs to be a national housebuilding target to inform local ones. If the local targets add up to less than we need nationally, they aren’t solving the problem

    3) The lack of a national target will simply be taken by some of our own council groups as a reason to build vastly less housing than they need to so they can placate the NIMBYs, robbing young people of the chance to actually afford adequate housing (and in some cases, to not be made to move miles from their families because they simply can’t afford to live where they grew up)

  • I think the Housing working group can rightly be proud of the work it has done. Perhaps for the first time the party had begun to engage with the real drivers of house price and rental inflation.
    Taking evidence from campaigning organisations and incorporating that advice has been crucial in moving the focus to a target to build social homes. New policies to unlock house building including reforming the 1961 Land Compensation Act and extending introducing new levies on land with planning permission, but not built on are equally important.
    I would like to see the party go further with integrating housing and tax policy to incentivise the development of land held out of use with a Land Value Tax and reform of council tax so that it is both fairly distributed and paid by owners of land not tenants.

  • Nonconformistradical 24th Sep '23 - 4:15pm

    @Kieron Franks
    “Building any type of home has been shown to free up cheaper housing further down the chain”
    Evidence? How many end up as second homes?

    ” There needs to be a national housebuilding target to inform local ones. If the local targets add up to less than we need nationally, they aren’t solving the problem”
    If that means sticking to something like 380,000/year I don’t see that is achievable given the shortage of qualified construction workers. It isn’t a SMART objective. And it doesn’t relate to what housing is needed in different parts of the country.

    Focussing on 150,000 social homes concentrates on the most serious problems.

  • Michael Hall 27th Sep '23 - 3:29pm

    I was pleased the motion passed with amendment one. This does not mean that building in the green belt should be allowed. Homes should be provided only if brownfield sites are available. I object to the policy of “abolishing leasehold”, and appealed the refusal of a separate vote on lines 82-84. Extending commercial leases to 999 years with no rent, would be a disaster for property investors. The policy paper was supposed to be about housing, not commercial property. I am reliably informed this was included in the policy paper in error. Remarkably only one person was called to speak on leasehold reform. I didn’t agree that residential leases be abolished, an unworkable policy, given that leaseholders would have to surrender their leases and purchase a share in the commonhold association. Most lenders won’t accept commonholds, so wouldn’t surrender. Reform is needed as recommended by the Law Commission https://www.lawcom.gov.uk/project/commonhold/
    The assertion that commonholds could simply be substituted for leases, at no cost, was extraordinary. Blocks of leasehold flats may be badly managed by landlords or “right to manage” companies started by leaseholders; conventional leasehold enfranchisement is no more difficult than establishing a commonhold association; I am sure this policy will not find its way into our party’s manifesto for the next general election. See https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CBP-8047/CBP-8047.pdf

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