The Next Lib Dem USP – Build More Houses

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In my last post on Lib Dem Voice I touched on the current soul-searching going on within our Party, focusing on future electoral strategy. However, a successful electoral strategy has no purpose if we have no vision of what we would do with any further power it may bring. Now that the fight to keep the UK in the EU has been lost, the Liberal Democrats are in need of a new mission.

I can think of none better than solving the country’s housing crisis. The current lack of housing in the UK contributes to a number of the country’s wider problems, and so to tackle the housing crisis would go some distance towards making our country greener, healthier, more productive, and more equal.

By failing to build enough houses in areas where people go to work, we have seen commute times rise on average to just under an hour a day. This has an adverse effect on people’s mental health and wellbeing, the productivity of the UK’s workforce, and the environment, as more and more people rely on polluting forms of transport to get to work. 

A lack of housebuilding has also seen younger people increasingly priced out of buying a home, and at the same time rents have rocketed.  This is fueling generational inequality and resentment amongst younger people. You only need to look to the recent election in Ireland to see how the housing crisis there has pushed younger people towards supporting populist, more extreme parties.

Finally, although the issue of homelessness is complex and can not be put down to a lack of housing alone, a shortage of suitable housing supply does nothing but compound the issue. 

There are ideas from both the left and the right on how best to solve the housing crisis and the Lib Dems must embrace the best of both. That means we need to ensure that many of the new houses we build are affordable for all, we need to be reviewing current green belt sites that are of low environmental value, and we need to be building at density to ensure a more efficient use of the land available.

Above all, Liberal Democrats at all levels of government should embrace a YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard), as opposed to NIMBY, attitude, looking for reasons why new housing should be rather than should not be built.

Solving the housing crisis will not only be beneficial to our country but also to our Party. Taking the crisis seriously will go a long way to winning the support of young voters who are currently seduced by the Labour Party’s seemingly radical but in reality illiterate offer.

Through ideas such as letting residents set their own design codes, and voting on developments on a street-by-street basis, it is possible to take current home-owners on the journey towards a fairer and greener society too.

With the anti-Brexit unique selling point now gone, the Lib Dems could do far worse than adopting being pro-housebuilding as our next.

* Alan Muhammed is Liberal Reform Co-Chair & works as a Management Consultant. He is a former Guildford Borough Councillor & Lib Dem HQ Campaigns Staffer.

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38 Comments

  • Rhys Taylor 25th Feb '20 - 1:04pm

    Absolutely. I’d urge caution on just sticking a target out there through. We need to make sure that we’re delivering the right sort of housing according to need – population growth but also homelessness projections and current estimates around hidden homelessness and ‘stagnant’ household formation.

    England needs to build 90000 social homes per year….And we’re way off that.

    Homelessness isn’t just about homes, but you can’t end homelessness without having a sufficient supply of homes – if you look at other European nations that have withstood the worst outcomes of the recession and austerity, they’ve fared better because they maintained high levels of housebuilding.

    I think we should be moving away from our obsession with owner occupancy being seen as personal and social progress. Social housing/social homes for rent should be seen as equally as aspirational. We also need to improve security in the PRS, given our dependency on the PRS to relieve and prevent homelessness and to encourage household formation.

    Finally, we need to make sure that we’re looking at the right land and we’re supporting Residential Social Landlords, councils and the private sector to develop ‘difficult’ land for housing where housing is needed

  • nigel hunter 25th Feb '20 - 1:12pm

    I have not heard a lot about modular housing lately.Why?
    There is plenty of experience/knowledge/production about the success of this kind of housing in Europe where there are whole ESTATES of them. (Netherlands for one). Housing should be a right NOT how much money you have. The obsession with owning a house (Tory mantra!) will not help a country where low income is a problem. At the moment the Govnt moves are only sticking plasters. Mass production of modular housing, they are factory built when done on mass economical scale couuld reduce the cost of construction and therefore lower rents paid .A housing policy of renting till the tenants income increases so that the remaining cost of the house then reverts to a mortgage is possible. The council can get the rental costs for council use and the the banks /building societies/ credit unions can then take over.Yes, a new direction is needed now thar rejoining the EU has to be put on the back burner.

  • John Marriott 25th Feb '20 - 3:31pm

    I’ve already today contributed to an earlier article on housing policy. So, if anyone is interested on my view that it was the ‘Right to Buy’ policy of the Thatcher government that added salt to already festering wounds, might I suggest that you scroll down a little?

    Rather like the late Baron Thomson of Fleet, when he acquired Scottish Television, several generations of Brits have been brought up to believe that owning your home (and possibly acquiring a few more in a property portfolio) virtually amounts, as the late Lord famously said, “a licence to print money”. Basing economic success on ever rising property values is not a sound basis, in my opinion, for a well planned future. Over the channel, where many people prefer to rent, our obsession with owning our own home (that is, at least when your mortgage is paid off) is hard to fathom. How often have pundits heralded an upturn in our economy the moment that houses prices once again edge up and that property owning ladder is pulled further out of the reach of first time buyers?

    It’s not rocket science after all. You make credit easier to obtain, you stop building enough houses and, hey presto, supply and demand. I see that we might be getting a revaluation of property in England and NI as part of a review of the dreaded Council Tax. Boy, are some people going to be in for a shock, as they were in Wales and Scotland a few years ago. My modest little home back in the early 1990s, when the Council Tax was hurriedly cobbled together after the fiasco of the Poll Tax, was valued at around £50k. Today similar properties where I live change hands for well over £200k!

    Clearly, not only does the private sector need to smarten up; but, more importantly, local councils need to be able to get back to providing the kind of well designed homes that they were doing after WW2. Let’s start by scrapping the right to buy on all Council and Housing Association properties and make sure that, in the private sector, if a home is designated for first time buyers, it should not be sold to become part of some enterprising citizen’s rental portfolio.

  • And build more roads and create more traffic and destroy more countryside and habitat. Or here’s a thought let the population decline and then you won’t need to build so much.

  • How are you going to “let the population decline” Glenn?

  • All are agreed that something needs to be done, but just about any proposed solution is fraught with difficulty. I instinctively like the idea of letting residents vote on developments but I fear that in most cases it will be NIMBY rather than YIMBY. Any attempt to make a step change in the number of dwellings built will immediately come up against a shortage of labour and materials, especially if we are restricting construction workers coming here from the EU.
    Encouraging a culture of rent rather than buy is pie in the sky. In my part of the world the rent on a new build one bedroom city center flat is £850, or if you can raise the 10% deposit the mortgage is £550, and you have an asset at the end of the day. It just doesn’t make financial sense to rent if you have a choice.
    Lenders are making it tough to get on the housing ladder. If we reduced the deposit required and gave people with a proven track record of paying rent an equivalent mortgage, that would help.
    In the past the problem of homelessness was dealt with by building large estates of social housing. And then we decided that we didn’t like the social results of that approach.
    Best idea up there is Nigel Hunter’s plea for modular housing. always fancied a Huf Haus, but that enthusiasm is not shared by lenders.

  • David Evershed 25th Feb '20 - 5:52pm

    Jenny Barnes says
    “We need to change the rules about planning gain so that the owner of a piece of agricultural land worth 7k£ per acre no longer gets a huge windfall of 500£ks to 1M£ks per acre once it is given planning permission. That’s why housing is so expensive. ”

    She is right about the reason for the high cost of houses . About half the cost of a new house is the cost of the land with planning approval. However, taking away the planning gain from the original land owner will not make the market price any lower for the new house buyer because the market price will be at a competitive price with existing houses for sale.

    What should lower the cost of land with planning approval is to grant an excess of planning approvals for development. Market competition in the lower cost new houses will then bring down the market price of new and old homes.

  • How do we incorporate a policy like this , in an inner city environment, without invading Into green belt sits for expansion .

    Their are only so many brown field sites we can develop without loss of greenery

    Malc Poll

  • Building on flood plains is just sheer madness ….

    They are called that for a reason

  • Modular housing is transported by road.The sites could be built next to main road areas. I would say that they should be linked to GOOD bus routes and cars discourage and/or a central parking area in one spot to then concentrate the housing. Equally the houses could be built on stilts with car parking underneath. That way they could even be built on flood plain (yes, they could have flooded cars but the house will be ok). As with land based solar panels with sheep munching the grass underneath the green spaces could be protected,used as parks or farm land . If we need a housing policy to sell we do need to think out of the box to sell a future world where the environment is of equal importance and where new communities spring up. With a ‘think tank’ a policy could be devised.

  • Malc Poll- There are some brownfield sites we could build on but that alone won’t be enough in order to build enough housing to meet our needs, especially in Greater London.

    Plus some of the greenbelt isn’t actually “greenery”, it’s post industrial or agricultural wasteland. Those areas are the bits we should be reviewing and (hopefully) building homes on.

  • Build all over london , hyde park the lot . Mater not 1 jot to me .

    Their is a dis-connect north to south . Politically Socially , and economically .

    Until that’s repressed, to be northenly blunt , no one cares about “the south”

    The same way no one care/s/d for us !

  • Repressed to address

    *typo*

  • Tony Hill
    We have an aging population and people are having less children later in life. Population decline in this model is quite natural. The point being that there is no need to keep increasing the population.Fans of the ever increasing population model tend to ignore the reality that people don’t just sit in heir home in a state of suspended animation, they go to the toilet, put lights on, heat rooms, use computers, throw, rubbish out, drive, weed their gardens, cut bushes down, go on holiday, have kids and so on. When you build homes you are also creating more waste disposal problems , more travel, more pressure on wild life and so. Personally, I just don’t see that destroying the environment so you can have more customers to sell more junk to is that desirable.
    I love the way you try to imply something sinister by putting “let the population decline” in quotation marks. When really, I’m only arguing that it doesn’t constantly need adding to.

  • Sir James Bevan chief exec. of environment agency says dredging and environmental precautions are a must. Population growth will put pressure on non flood plain areas for housing will ensue and therefore overcrowding. Maybe my houses on stilts (with all other provisions ie sanitation,waste disposal methods) is a future possibility. With the right policies,innovations,attitudes and a reorganization of life styles the country could be transformed. The Lib Dems in the past have led on all sorts of reforms ,this is another that we could lead the way.

  • n hunter 25th Feb ’20 – 9:15pm:
    Maybe my houses on stilts (with all other provisions ie sanitation, waste disposal methods) is a future possibility.

    Yours for £1.25 million…

    ‘The house built on STILTS: Flood-proof riverside home designed by husband and wife architects in 1965 goes on the market for first time for £1.25million’:
    https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-6082719/Thames-flood-proof-home-built-stilts-1965-goes-market-time.html

  • “How do we incorporate a policy like this , in an inner city environment, without invading Into green belt sits for expansion.”

    Build upwards. Most UK cities, suburbs and towns are amazingly flat (and indeed that image in the article sums up the issue – an inefficient mass of two storey houses). Instead of spreading outwards we should be going up and encouraging more apartment living (properly sized, attractively built and with proper access to communal outdoor space).

  • David Evans 26th Feb '20 - 1:01am

    But what is Unique to the Lib Dems about building more houses? Every party is in favour of it – the Conservatives because it will mean more profits for landowners, Labour to provide housing for workers, etc. etc.

    In addition, it’s party policy already.

  • There are some good ideas here, but I think that joining them together is probably important to seriously tackle this issue. Building more houses, regardless of type, isn’t going to be enough on its own. It’s the type of policy where you have to actually be in power to get it enacted – we were recently reminded that the Government’s pledge to make 200,000 starter homes in five years hadn’t come to fruition at all. If this is anything to go by – https://institute.global/policy/tackling-uk-housing-crisis-supply-answer-summary – housing supply is not the core issue but rather the accessibility of it.

    One of the biggest issues, as identified, is the notion of housing (and land) as an investible asset. What relationship should there be with foreign investors buying properties as rental investments? There’re issues around our economy at large not providing (especially young) people with the purchasing power to get on the market to begin with. There are issues (internationally) around higher power jobs becoming harder to find outside of cities, connected with the OP’s commuting point. Wider wealth inequalities and asset pooling underpins some of these issues.

  • I was just asking the question Glenn, not imputing anything! There are not many options that available to letting the population decline: reducing immigration is the only one that is really under the control of the government.

  • John Marriott 26th Feb '20 - 7:05am

    @Dam M-B
    “Build upwards”? Didn’t we try that in the 1950s and 60s with disastrous results? This isn’t Hong Kong. We have plenty space. It’s just that much of it is spoken for or nimbyfied. We could start by compulsorily purchasing land where planning permission has been granted but building has not taken place within a reasonable time period. But, as I said earlier, we have first of all to ween the great British public off the idea that owning land or property is a “licence to print money”.

  • Building more houses is very generic and boring and obvious, but, like Nigel Hunter said, modular housing and prefabrication will be very innovative and radical solutions in the context of Britain.

  • clive english 26th Feb '20 - 8:48am

    Population decline (in the long term) has already started it is pretty clear that the UK is past the demographic transistion. This means that in the long term housing demand will still exist but will not be for quite the dsame type of houysing and overall demand will all other things being equal be lower.
    The need thus is is to build housing that is fit for all generations to live in. In the medium term the UK housing crisis is not going to be solved by building or at least giving planning permissions for lots of new msarket housing and very slightly discounted not very affordable housing. Developers will manage the release of this stock to keep prices high,
    Councils need to be given the ability to build social housing and lots of it without losing all of their new stock withion a few years to the right to buy and this housing needs to be fit to live in throughout a lifetime to fit the needs of an aging population.

  • John Barrett 26th Feb '20 - 9:20am

    Building more houses is neither a unique selling point (as previous contributors have already mentioned – it is the policy of all major parties) and is not necessarily the answer to the existing housing problem. If they are built on floodplains, they will make matters much worse.

    Other innovative ways to tackle our housing shortage should be developed within the party and might include and end to the right to buy, local councils accessing cash at low interest rates and building more low cost homes to rent, making use of the thousands of empty properties in all of our major cities and many other places, introducing incentives for people with larger properties to make use of the empty bedrooms, by downsizing or renting/sharing with others.

    Edinburgh may be different from many other cities, but we have a building boom on greenfield sites around the city while inner city brownfield sites with planning consent remain undeveloped. Why? The houses are cheaper to build on greenfield sites and sell for more as they are in more desirable locations. In the area I live in there are many elderly people living on their own in large family homes, possibly thinking they might have to sell them to pay for their long term care.

    There are no doubt many other innovative solutions to the housing problem, simply building more houses, which are unaffordable to many, is not the answer.

  • Phil Beesley 26th Feb '20 - 12:45pm

    Fraser Coppin: “There are some brownfield sites we could build on but that alone won’t be enough in order to build enough housing to meet our needs, especially in Greater London.

    Plus some of the greenbelt isn’t actually “greenery”, it’s post industrial or agricultural wasteland. Those areas are the bits we should be reviewing and (hopefully) building homes on.”

    Well said. I’d suggest that readers also think about definitions.

    ‘Greenbelt’ is land around urban areas in which development is restricted for a number of reasons. When first established, greenbelts were intended to prevent ribbon development along transport routes and that remains the best reason for them today. They prevent sprawl and the diffusion of communities. Greenbelts are not necessarily pretty areas (a lot of agriculture is brutal) but open space and recreation are ambitions for them too. In reality, a lot of greenbelt is inaccessible to those in neighbouring communities. Development in greenbelt has always occurred (somehow wealthy people get permission to convert a cottage into a big house) so we should be thinking about how flexibility in the greenbelt planning rules might benefit those with a financial or occupational need rather than money.

    ‘Brownfield’ is land that has been built on previously, thus encompassing everything from land where residential or light industrial buildings have been demolished to land used for unpleasant industry. A lot of brownfield land in cities has been unused for decades. It has been used as informal playgrounds, informal nature reserves or just the wilderness land between housing and industry where nature finds its own niche. Of course we have to use brownfield land but we also have to preserve some of it as open space. Urban dwellers have a need for a patch of scrub, something unmanicured, where they might come across unfamiliar birds or plants. As a policy, perhaps we might look at how ‘nasty brownfield’ is used in preference to ‘nice brownfield’?
    To be continued…

  • Phil Beesley 26th Feb '20 - 12:46pm

    continuing…

    ‘Infill’ — I’m not sure what it means anymore. My local authority is
    happy to develop land which was reserved from housing 50 years ago in
    order to provide urban green spaces. Nowadays infill also seems to
    include what was called ‘parallel development’ — where a narrow
    driveway between number 32 and 34 provides access to 32A and 34A built
    in the back gardens of existing houses. Thirty years ago, that sort of
    development was restricted. Maybe we should ask whether we are making
    the right choice.

    Urban dwellers, in a city or a small town, deserve open space close to
    home. That means not building on easy to access land, thinking about how
    brownfield is developed or left open, or how we can ‘plan’ urban
    wilderness which arrived by chance in the past.

  • @john – I don’t particularly mean 50s/60s tower blocks. We have plenty of more modern high rise and low rise examples to choose from. We also have plenty of leafy streets of 3/4 storey Georgian houses that are now flats/maisonettes, which could be replicated elsewhere. eg more of this sort of thing: https://media.onthemarket.com/properties/2047694/img_0_0_dc.jpg, which has a smaller footprint than two equivalent 4-bed detached (and could perhaps even have gone up a floor to be two self-contained maisonettes instead).

    People seem perfectly happy to live in city centre flats, but hit the suburbs and the default tends to be more traditional housing. Given the constraints of nimbyism and often idealistic perceptions of what the greenbelt is, I think we could use what land we ‘do’ have more efficiently.

  • Richard Underhill 26th Feb '20 - 4:18pm

    We had a leader, with a constituency in Cumbria, who focussed on housing. It helps if the council is controlled by Lib Dems.
    A speaker at a fringe meeting at federal conference was looking for somewhere for an offspring of his. Every room contained a refrigerator and some had mirrors on the ceiling.

  • tonyhill
    I’m sorry for the misunderstanding. My mistake!

  • Several points:

    Firstly, there is an elephant in this room that no-one has seen fit to mention, namely immigration.

    Net migration since 2015 has averaged around 265,000 per year. That’s roughly a new Southampton every year or a new Liverpool every two years. That compares with new house completions of 214,000 (England only), up slightly from the recession lows but still way below the 1960s peak of 350,000.

    This is wildly unsustainable on every front – schools, hospitals, roads, utilities, environment and, of course, housing. The Tories pretend they are opposed (see Brexit) but it’s happened largely on their watch and, coincidentally (or more likely not!), it is property owners who are the big beneficiaries.

    Secondly, there are the tax aspects of holding and selling land all of which just happen to be perfectly tailored to maximise profit for landowners. So, absent Land Value Tax (I’m amazed no-one has mentioned it) there is no cost penalty to holding land indefinitely. And then when it is sold capital gains are taxed (IIRC) at a flat rate of only 20% so way less than the tax on earned income. This all works to increase the cost of land and hence housing.

    Modest changes to the tax system would incentivise the recycling of underutilised land while massively boosting local government income.

    Thirdly, there are skills – or rather the lack of them. The UK has historically neglected training for trade skills, such system as had eventually emerged was broken by Thatcher in a ham-fisted attempt at privatisation. No party has a sensible plan even now creating a ceiling that’s very hard to breach.

    Then there is the big builder oligopoly in the UK which delivers a combination of shoddy houses and sky-high profits. It contrasts (in a bad way) with much of Europe where self-builders and small builders have a much larger market share.

    So, planning really isn’t the problem although the Tories would very much like everyone to believe it is. Moreover, from the above it’s easy to plot the outline of a very different approach as follows: (a) dramatically less migration, (b) change the tax laws relating to holding and selling land, (c) take trade skills seriously and create opportunity to the many excluded and, (d) tackle the oligopoly.

  • Phil Beesley 26th Feb '20 - 5:45pm

    It is really hard to determine what works for people. This prize winning estate sounds brilliant but until people live there we cannot know.

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-49970607

  • I agree with others; building more homes is not a unique selling point. The numbers are important. The Tories are promising at least 1 million new homes over the next five years and maybe 300,000 a year. Both us and Labour are promising 300,000 a year in the future with 100,000 of ours being social housing and of Labour’s being council houses. Shelter state we need to build 3.1 million new social homes in the next twenty years. They say we need to build 209,000 new social homes a year and 140,000 new private homes a year. At conference in September I spoke to our housing spokesperson in the House of Lords and he said that the party’s position is that this is not desirable because it would mean building high rise flats.

    We need something which is actually unique, such as creating a new social contract to replace the broken Beveridge one. Part of which would include building the 3.1 million new social homes in 20 years. Then we can come up with the policies to achieve this target. Some of the suggestions made should be included. However, it is the target which would get us noticed if different from the other parties and which would go a long way to deal with the housing crisis.

  • Peter Martin 28th Feb '20 - 3:25am

    The problem we have got ourselves into is that we do rely on high property and land prices to act as collateral for very high levels of private debt. The mainstream seem to think that having a government debt to gdp ratio of something like 90%, or much less if you exclude the debt owned by the BoE, is too high, but private debt levels of more than 220% of GDP is no problem at all!

    I would disagree. Private debt is the main problem. And while it is the problem property prices have to stay high to prevent bankruptcy for many of those who have over-borrowed. This will lead to the economy crashing! So, no easy solution to the housing crisis.

    https://tradingeconomics.com/united-kingdom/private-debt-to-gdp

  • Katharine Pindar 28th Feb '20 - 9:57pm

    Housing by itself is too narrow a topic, George Kendall. I suggest Health Inequality, which, as explained by Sir Michael Marmot (see a current Op Ed about this under the title ‘Society has stopped improving’), involves many other issues which affect individual and societal health, and undoubtedly can include the need for decent housing for everyone. Health Inequality can in this sense fit into the issues raised as needing to form part of the new national Social Contract proposed by Michael BG and myself as an overarching theme for our party. But I take it you have not noticed the two recent threads on this topic which together raised nearly 200 comments; I suppose you must have been busy elsewhere.

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