Yes – in my back yard: The Lib Dems need to TRULY be the party of housebuilding

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To NIMBY or not to NIMBY, that is the question that has plagued local parties since time immemorial. But to be a progressive party today, we need to embrace a radical house-building agenda. That means supporting development projects locally across the country, and gritting our teeth and taking a constructive stance towards the Governments planning reform.

Nationally, the Liberal Democrats talk the good talk. Our manifesto includes ambitious housebuilding plans that seek to tackle the huge supply deficit in the housing market. Locally, it’s a different story altogether. It’s a faustian pact that most local politicians have to make regardless of party: the reason is that homeowners vote, and opposing more development, that will bring the value of their houses down, will win them over.

This is the unspoken reason many local parties oppose development in their area. They’ll couch it in terms of “inappropriate development” or “lack of infrastructure”, but the truth is they don’t want to see development at all. They’re caving in to parochial local homeowner pressure and it’s deeply regressive. We need to support homeownership, not homeowners. The simple fact of the matter is that you can’t be a NIMBY and progressive at the same time.

The lack of housing supply is driving inequality – both generationally and regionally. One popular reason for opposing development is the lack of “affordability”of the new homes. This is admirable – but misguided. The truth is that new housing stock represents a tiny percentage of the total housing stock in Britain today; trying to ensure that a fraction of a fraction is affordable simply won’t make a difference. The solution is a higher volume of housing; that will pull all prices down, making owning a home accessible to everyone in the long term, rather than erecting a handful of new builds.

The knee-jerk opposition to planning reform has been most frustrating to observe. One of the main obstacles to housebuilding is the planning system that hasn’t made sense for decades. It’s outdated, and desperately needs reform. Although it has its issues, and details need to be ironed out, the Government’s planning reform proposals are without a doubt a step in the right direction.

A zoning system, with the zones decided on a local level, is significantly better than the creaking postwar system we have now. That’s what the new white paper proposes. It doesn’t “strip decision making away from local people”, the opposite is true; it’s actively gathering proposals from local authorities to decide which areas should be labelled “growth”, “protected”, or “for renewal”. The only difference is the local input is at an earlier stage in the planning process, significantly speeding things up.

Accurate criticisms of the white paper are its vagaries, and questions remain about how non-cash concessions previously included under section 106 can be replaced. Arguments could be made about strengthening and ensuring the continued input of local authorities. But the point is that it’s actually a step in the right direction. The Liberal Democrat response to the white paper should be constructive in its opposition, not giving into regressive, parochial NIMBYism.

Our generation deserves a better shot in life than the one we currently have. Building more houses in line or exceeding our existing national policy is key. But that power rests with the local councils we worked so hard to win. We need to be brave, and lead the YIMBY (yes in my back yard) revolution from the front. Some of our councils are already showing how it can be done, like in Sutton and Cheltenham.

Sometimes the right thing to do is politically and electorally difficult, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do them.

* Ollie Bradfield is a Campaigns and Communications Intern at ALDC with responsibility for the by-elections reporting service

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  • Mark Smulian 20th Oct '20 - 1:06pm

    I agree with the thrust of this that too many Lib Dems have wanted to have it both ways on housing by declaring themselves in favour of building more homes but then objecting to most plans to build them.

    It falls though into the trap of appearing to assume that there is some vast amount of spare capacity in the construction industry which could be suddenly switched on were the government’s planning reforms – or some other reforms – to take effect.

    There isn’t. You need skills to build homes. The construction industry has been complaining about skilled labour shortages throughout the 35 years I’ve covered it as a business journalist. It has never cracked this problem.

    Even if Ollie is right about the government’s planning reforms, they could all be passed but little would happen if the construction industry lacks the skilled labour. It’s true modular construction could help (since it requires lower skill levels) but things remain a long way from investors being given the confidence for that to take off. See also my article in Liberator 389.

  • Jenny Barnes 20th Oct '20 - 3:33pm

    The problem with housebuilding is land prices, which comes back to planning gain. Agricultural land might be worth £10k/ acre, while if it’s zoned for residential it’s worth a £1M or so. Social housing could be built much more cheaply if it could be built on agricultural value land.

  • Paul Barker 20th Oct '20 - 5:01pm

    As Liberals we should see New Building as the absolute last resort & we should be arguing for a complete end to demolition.
    New Building generates huge amounts of CO2, we should be pushing for Rehab & Extension wherever possible, particularly in the Suburbs. 90% of suburban Housing is low-rise, we should encouraging owners to add on extra storeys & retrofit insulation at the same time.
    Where old buildings really have to be taken down it should be careful & steady, with materials re-used
    In Town Centres lots of old Office & Retail space is going to become vacant in the next few Years, that can be converted to low-energy housing.

  • David Evans 20th Oct '20 - 5:42pm

    Sadly this article does not truly attempt to understand why hard working local Lib Dem councillors often oppose development plans in their local patch. The patch they often know much more about than anyone else.

    Instead it denigrates them with a quick “This is the unspoken reason many local parties oppose development in their area. They’ll couch it in terms of ‘inappropriate development’ or ‘lack of infrastructure’, but the truth is they don’t want to see development at all.” That is an easy meme put about by those who don’t want to engage with the difficult detail of planning, building houses, roads, pollution, drainage etc, and does not reflect well on the author.

    I will leave it to others to make the point for their community, but mention the esteemed Andy Bodders who has made excellent points in his Blog about why the proposed Castle View Terrace in Ludlow is quite simply crackers.

    I will simply refer to my patch, Kendal. In December 2015 Storm Desmond flooded over a thousand houses in two wards in Kendal – those of my wife Shirley and myself. One major reason was that a mini reservoir, built as part of a flood alleviation scheme about 20 years ago failed. Of course the officers of the Environment Agency argued that it didn’t fail – It didn’t overtop – When it was in danger of overtopping, an emergency sluice opened and dumped the excess water where it was designed to dump it – In the middle of the housing estate the scheme was supposed to protect.

    However, the reason the mini-reservoir nearly overtopped was because in the following 20 years lots of extra homes were built that put their excess rain water into it. The flood risk assessments from the flood authority were inadequate and didn’t consider this factor.

    So our council gave permission for houses (including affordable housing, but you have to be quite well off to afford Affordable Housing in our area) to be built which led to over 1000 houses flooding – older houses mainly, occupied by poorer people in the centre of our town.

    Perhaps you may think I am couching it ‘in terms of “inappropriate development” or “lack of infrastructure”, but the truth is we don’t want to see development at all’. In which case I might call you ill informed and populist (in this case).

    Being a Lib Dem is never easy or simple, and other people often know a lot of thing we don’t. But please don’t trash members of our party with overly simplistic mores.

  • Paul Holmes 20th Oct '20 - 7:00pm

    I’m afraid you entirely fail to make your case Ollie. A million more homes have been granted Planning permission than have been built and 90% of all applications are approved -so no evidence at all that the current planning system is at fault.

    As for my own area, we have lots of brownfield, former factory sites, that we would love for houses, industrial units etc to be built on but developers of course all too often prefer greenfields that are easier, cheaper and more profitable. Hundreds of houses on a former steelworks site in my Ward have planning permission but not a sign of activity so far. Across town, on the more affluent side, there is a large area of former textile and packaging mills dating back to mid Victorian times and earlier which had outline planning permission which lapsed due to lengthy inactivity. Our Cllrs in those two Wards would love to see the area regenerated.

  • Peter Davies 20th Oct '20 - 10:18pm

    Lack of planning permission is not currently a problem. If we got everything else right it might well be in some areas. Housing is a very local thing. Almost nothing that I say about what needs to happen in my area of London will be relevant to David Evans in Cumbria. Our policy at national level should be to devolve housing decisions to a level where people know the issues but if you want to get more houses built overall, you have to align the interests of the decision making body with the national interest, that means linking council funding to growth in the number of people decently housed in their area.

  • No we need to stop the destruction of land. It’s an appalling attack on the environment and wildlife. It also shows how hollow “green” politics often are. The logic seems to be cut down trees, plough up fields, destroy habitat and put a couple of solar panels somewhere or add a wind turbine or two here or there and that is the environment taken care of. I used to get the train a lot. What is being done to the countryside is criminal. It is not being done because people are living in cardboard boxes on waste dumps. It’s being done because we’ve made the destruction too easy and too profitable. Planning permission should in fact be made prohibitively strict in what used to be the greenbelt. Not because of nimbyism, but because of the permanent damage it is causing.

  • Robin Grayson FGS 21st Oct '20 - 12:33pm

    NYMBYISM is more important that just about homes. It is completely wrong to portray it as simply about housing. Planners need to keep open land open for all manner of other potential uses apart from just future housing needs. NYMBYISM includes ensuring land is always available as lengthy corridors for long distance pipelines for water, power lines, future widening of trunk roads and motorways, construction of high-speed railways, upgrading of existing railways and acceleration lines for new freight spurs, new metro lines, long distance communication cables; as well as sizeable plots of land for military bases, nuclear power stations, landraising sites, landfilling sites, land sterilised by landslides, land sterilised by rock salt dissolution, land affected by gypsum dissolution, land affected by limestone karst fissures and potholes, land sterilised by pillar-and-stall shallow coal mining and shallow limestone mining; land needed to protect potash deposits for future generations, land prone to major and minor landslides, land lacking coastal defences, land at risk of severe flooding from storm surges and rising sea levels, land required for improving and expanding waste water treatment works (and upgrading the sewers to end disposal of untreated effluent), land required for future civil and military airport expansion, land sterilised by existing flight paths, land with noise levels that are difficult to remedy; urban and rural land with excessive air pollution (NO2, ammonia, PM2.5 etc), land with peat bogs and forests vital for carbon sequestration and for the forestry industry, land vital for the regional and national tourism industry; large plots of land for future green industry; huge areas of land in Devon, Cornwall, Wales etc. affected by thousands of years of metal mining, huge areas of open land needed for the nuclear industry not only for nuclear power stations but also sites for deep storage dumps of nuclear waste; vital mineral resources (such as construction materials, aggregates, concrete batching, cement production, potash production, grit and rock salt for roads), future widening of motorways, long-distance water pipelines, floodwater storage, wind farms… and more besides.

  • VAT on upgrading existing buildings to decent housing vrs no VAT on new builds equals a lot of properties remaining unused year after year. An example local to me is the former Post Office at Baxter’s Plain, King’s Lynn.

  • It surely all depends on what is proposed and where it is proposed ie is there proper infrastructure such as transport education and other amenities and are the designs well thought through?

    In terms of where to build Ed Davey put it very eloquently when he said “there are parts of the green belt I would lie in front of a bulldozer to protect and other parts I would direct the bulldozer to.

    I would also like to see more intensification of brownfield inner urban areas with much of the new housing sold as part rent part buy – hopefully assuming rumours of the demise of cities are exaggerated.

    Overall we should be neither NIMBYs or YIMBYs it depends on the context.

  • Peter Davies 22nd Oct '20 - 12:16pm

    The term green belt is somewhat misleading. It also contains fairways and bunkers.

  • Peter Martin 8th Nov '20 - 9:30pm

    @ Ollie,

    “The lack of housing supply is driving inequality……”

    Coming from Cornwall you might want to question just how much of a lack of supply there actually is. There are, for much of the year, plenty of empty properties in Cornwall. The problem for the Cornish is they happen to live in a county with near London housing prices but jobs pay Cambourne wages. There isn’t so much a housing shortage as an affordability crisis caused by an ever widening level of inequality.

    You could start by advocating imposing very high taxes on homes which were kept empty for extended periods. But you probably don’t want to upset your social class AB voters in Twickenham and Richmond!

  • Daniel Walker 9th Nov '20 - 11:56am

    @Peter Martin “You could start by advocating imposing very high taxes on homes which were kept empty for extended periods.

    Perhaps the policy you suggest could be worded as follows:

    “Allow local authorities to increase council tax by up to 500 per cent where homes are being bought as second homes with a stamp duty surcharge on overseas residents purchasing such properties.”

    We could put it in the manifesto, as we did last year 🙂 (Access to Affordable Housing section, p45 of the clear print version)

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