Tim Farron: Time to end pointless housing targets

Be honest. When did you last collect a campaign leaflet from the doormat, see a six-figure housing target, and scream, “this is the Party for me!”?

Probably never.

Why? First, because everybody knows housing targets are empty slogans. No Government has hit their magic number since 2007, but they’ve never been held accountable for missing it. Second, every Party picks the same number… or tries to out-do the other lot by 50,000.

On Saturday evening, Conference will debate and vote on Policy Motion F20: Building Communities. I’m supporting an Amendment to the Motion which increases local authorities’ compulsory purchase powers, ensures that 40% of new build houses are social homes, and erases the proposed national target of 380,000 new homes per year.

And if anybody suggests the removal of this target is in any way NIMBY, they are… well, let’s put it politely – they’re totally wrong.

We need to see hundreds of thousands of homes being built every year. But the problem with setting sky-high targets is that when targets rise, regulations shatter. It’s the surest way of meeting the demand of the haves and failing to meet need of the have-nots.

Take the Lakes and the Dales National Parks. Until 2015, the Park Authorities could enforce 100% affordability quotas. Developers knew not to ask if they could build executive homes, so landowners knew exactly how much their plot was worth. They knew it’s value for 12 council houses and there was no point asking what it was worth for 3 mansions. Land became available and homes got built.

Since 2015, those regulations have relaxed. Now developers know they can squeeze more profit out by building some houses for market sale. So landowners sit on their land hoping for a higher bidder. Planning authorities are reluctant to grant permission because they worry developers will build homes that won’t meet local need.

There are many people – including many within our Party – whose hearts are in the right place. They think high target numbers and minimal planning restrictions are beneficial for all. In reality, they’re the speculator’s greatest friend and the enemy of anybody on a council house waiting list.

The belief that we can build our way to affordability is a fantasy. The Government’s own data shows that building 300,000 new homes for 20 years would only reduce house prices by 6%.

This reminds me of that moment in Mitchell and Webb where David Mitchell’s character looks around his fellow guards and asks, with dawning realisation, “Are we the baddies?”. Yes, you are… sorry. Reducing planning restrictions reduces the number of homes that get built and ensures that we get very few which anyone can afford.

Under normal circumstances, I’d be at Conference to tell these truths face-to-face. Jabbing my finger, looking you in the eye and demanding that you do as I ask (politely)! I’d even throw in some terrible jokes for good measure.

However, some things are even more important than Conference… like taking your daughter to University for the first time.

One of the reasons I do what I do is because I want a better future for our kids. That’s why I fought Brexit; I didn’t want to keel over when their future was at stake. And it’s why I’m urging you not to accept well-intentioned nonsense in this Motion.

The numbers are pointless. In fact, they’re counterproductive. The radical thing is to take them out.

The media might raise an eyebrow. The public won’t. Because when someone asks “Mr. Davey, why don’t you have a housing target?” we can point to the shambles that they’ve been and the effective politics we’ll pursue instead.

There are 1 million unbuilt homes with planning permission already granted. We’ll do something about that.

There are 268,385 long-term empty properties in England. We’ll do something about that.

80% of properties in the Lake District are sold as second homes. We’ll do something about that.

Across the country, thousands of private renters are being forced out to make way for Airbnb’s. We’ll do something about that.

To win elections, we need to stand out, turn our backs on arbitrary numbers and show that we’re focussed on changing the whole landscape – busy creating loads of homes, whether brand new, repurposed, or redistributed, that are truly affordable for people on low and middle incomes.

On Saturday, you can choose to persist with the performative pointlessness of high targets and under-delivery, or you can lay the foundations for a path that might actually work.

* Tim Farron is Liberal Democrat Spokesperson on Agriculture and MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale.

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  • Peter Davies 18th Sep '21 - 12:17pm

    Social housing is a contract not a physical structure. If your area needs more social housing, the fastest way to get it is to buy on the open market, renovate, insulate and let on a social contract. The problem is completely separate from the overall lack of housing. In particular they don’t relate to the same areas or the same demographics.

    That means that the solution for South Lakeland is not the solution for Sunderland or Islington. The party should be pressing government to devolve all the powers needed to deal with this to local authorities and letting local parties decide our own local policies.

    National targets are meaningless but so largely are national initiatives.

  • It’s seriously disappointing to see a senior party figure pushing this line, and in what I have to say I find a rather patronising way. And yes, I’m afraid that people will call you NIMBY for it – because that is exactly what it boils down to.

    We all know what the amendment’s call for a local approach means in practice. It means that it will miraculously turn out that we don’t need any new houses in Lib Dem target seats. When we take that opportunistic line now, people can point to the fact that it’s wildly inconsistent with our national policy, so apparently our national commitment has to go.

    Local democracy is vital in the planning process, but liberals understand we need checks and balances on all power, even local. One of the key challenges with local planning is that only existing communities get a say – which means those who stand most to benefit from development are cut out of the picture. That means, without national action to balance this effect out, the scales will tend to tip in the direction of building less than we need. That’s why we need the national target, applied in a sensible way at the local level.

    I also note that the motion (unamended) contains provisions to tackle planning permissions granted but not used – by allowing for someone else to take over the site and get the job done. So if landbanking really is the fundmental problem holding up supply – though I’m not convinced – that should make hitting the target in the motion a breeze.

    I also have to say that a 6% reduction in house prices – rather than a continuing spiral upwards – sounds like a win to me. But that’s by the by.

    I’m tired of watching intelligent young people who should be this party’s future slowly conclude that it is simply not interested in fighting for them. I’m tired of arguing with them about it and losing. It’s time we got serious about this, and this motion – unamended – is the bare minimum we need to do that.

  • Rob Parsons 18th Sep '21 - 2:08pm

    @Stuart W “It means that it will miraculously turn out that we don’t need any new houses in Lib Dem target seats.” Totally wrong, Stuart. In Lewes – LibDem controlled within an alliance – we have been building new social housing. IIRR more in the last year than the Tories managed in the last ten years of their control. We all know we need more houses, but we need the right kind of houses. So that’s what we’re doing, and that is what the amendment provides for.

    Big problem with the target strategy is as Tim says: sounds like a great idea, has perverse effects.

  • Mary Regnier-Wilson 18th Sep '21 - 6:48pm

    Claiming that removing the housing target is not nimbyish is like claiming that having a revoke policy was not anti-democratic.

    True in principle, but completely false in perception. And we know that where it helps them, our opposition will say that we have a national housing target of zero. And our potential voters who recognise that we have a huge housing problem in this country will have a gut reaction to that.
    I can’t believe that Tim is pushing the party towards another policy that will require explaining on the doorstep – because when we are explaining, we are losing.

  • Very proud of my party for rejecting this amendment tonight. Massive congratulations to the fantastic Young Liberals who spoke so passionately against it, and the local government leaders who supported them.

    We need to get serious about housing. Tonight is the start of that.

  • I agree with Stuart that we need to get serious about housing. But getting serious means listening to the members with experience on housing issues – and Parliamentarians, ALDC and the experienced Councillors all spoke in support of both parts of the amendment.
    National targets do not often appear on campaign literature for Council elections – because the relationship between the national target and the impact on a local area is complex. However, they are very easy to use by other parties to undermine a campaign.
    I therefore ask the proposers of the motion to explain how the target of 380,000 homes per year was derived. Without that explanation, it is impossible to justify the policy to voters.

  • Roger Billins 19th Sep '21 - 12:22pm

    I have a slight nagging feeling that the statisticians have got it wrong and that we don’t need so much private house building ? Has anybody done an impact assessment of the effect of hundreds of thousands of EU Citizens leaving the country, excess deaths over the last 2 years and a declining birthrate ? Is the answer that the demand is all in the South and that there is in fact sufficient supply elsewhere. Before committing the country to massive house building, these studies need to be done. Meanwhile, we do need:
    1. New social housing.
    2. Better design standards on new builds.
    3 infrastructure to keep up with new housing.

  • Paul Barker 19th Sep '21 - 2:32pm

    One of the things we should be saying loudly is that New Building & Demolition should be absolutely the last resort, a presumption against them should be built into planning law.

  • nigel hunter 19th Sep '21 - 3:13pm

    The big construction companies that build houses are a monopoly.They can buy the land and sit on it UNTIL THEY DECIDE THEY CAN MAKE ENOUGH PROFIT FROM BUILDING HOUSES on it.The planning laws need to be altered so that it is better to build more houses,social and private, than are needed.Prices fall,young people can then afford to buy a house as income rises after starting off in social rented accommodation.Disposable income is then spent on the economy. The monopolists,who donate to the Tory party have to be dealt with along with the planning laws

  • Peter Davies 19th Sep '21 - 4:09pm

    “The Government’s own data shows that building 300,000 new homes for 20 years would only reduce house prices by 6%” I’d be interested in seeing this research. On its own, it could mean anything from “House prices would be 6% lower if we built 6m houses than if none were built” to “House prices would be 6% lower in real terms”. The first would be disappointing, The second a reasonable target.

  • neil James sandison 21st Sep '21 - 9:11pm

    The problem is the development lobby their friends in the Conservative party argue for more land for housing without specifying what type of housing doing their very best not to comply with adopted local plans or identified targets within those local plans . Perhaps what we should consider leveling up the playing field and advise those who fill conservative coffers to make excessive profits that an incoming government we may be part of would seriously consider windfall taxes on property developers where they have pleaded they could not build those much needed social and affordable housing then make huge profits on the sites

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