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By Baroness Smith of Llanfaes
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Liberal Democrats Are Braced For Housing Row At Conference

Liberal Democrats will kick off their first in-person conference since 2019 on Sunday (Alamy)

5 min read

Housing is at the top of the agenda at the Liberal Democrat party conference, as the leadership hopes to pass a controversial motion to ditch national housing targets for private sector homes and instead commit to building thousands of “community-led” social homes.

As the Lib Dems host their first in-person party conference since the last general election in 2019, deputy leader Daisy Cooper told PoliticsHome she expects housing will be the most contentious issue debated. 

The party has enjoyed a series of by-election successes in recent years, often by appealing to traditional ‘blue wall’ Conservative voters by opposing government and private sector planning proposals.

Their national policy agenda, however, claims to be in favour of “community-led housing” that would prioritise the needs of residents over the interests of developers. However, there will be pressure from young liberals to be more ambitious with their housing targets. 

“We like the fact that we can debate these issues at conference and take a vote – it's part of who we are, it's part of our DNA,” Cooper said. 

“So we never shy away from debates where they can be either controversial or where there's a difference of opinion. And I think one of the areas which we're hoping we can take a step forward is particularly around this issue of housing.”

In the 2019 Conservative Party manifesto, the government set out a target for 300,000 new homes to be built a year by the mid-2020s, which it says will now be achieved through "advisory" local targets.

The Liberal Democrats have previously set out a similar pledge by committing to a national housing target of 380,000 new homes per year. However, a motion is coming up on Monday at the party conference which will give members an opportunity to vote to scrap this national target but maintain a commitment to building 150,000 social homes per year.

The motion advocates for introducing a new approach to housing targets with "independently-assessed local housing targets that are appropriate for the specific areas' needs", while setting "binding targets" for affordable and social housing set by the local authority. Cooper said she “very much” hopes it will pass. 

“We are a party that has consistently said we want a community-led approach to housing, rather than the Conservatives’ top-down developer-led housing system,” she said.

"The government's top-down housing targets that don't discriminate between what type of houses, the size of the houses or where the houses should go, it's an absolute gift to the big developers that obviously sit in the pockets of the Conservative Party.”

She claimed that such targets “do not solve” the housing crisis and “destroy parts of our environment and the Greenbelt”.

Daisy Cooper was elected as the Liberal Democrat MP for St Albans in 2019 (Alamy)
Daisy Cooper was elected as the Liberal Democrat MP for St Albans in 2019 (Alamy)

However, the chair of the Young Liberals group Janey Little wrote in Liberal Democrat Voice in August that the proposed motion “falls far short of the basic notion of liberalism”.

“The housing motion and policy paper coming to conference proposes the abolition of the national housing target, to be replaced with a nimby charter allowing local councils to pass the buck to the next council for housing young people,” she wrote.

“Our party must not choose a course of action we all know will make things immeasurably worse for people who just want a good start in their adult life.

“The party should think very carefully before picking another fight on housing that it cannot win.”

Cooper insisted there was not a fundamental tension between the Lib Dems’ desire for restrictions on planning and a commitment to providing enough homes and infrastructure for a growing population.

“I don't see any conflict here at all,” she said, adding that while some individual Lib Dem MPs had been outspoken against the HS2 rail project, the party still recognised it was an “important piece of infrastructure”.

“Personally, I think HS2 is an important piece of infrastructure, but I think the entire country is completely and utterly appalled at the way that the government has allowed the cost to get completely out of hand,” she said.

“And I do think we need to hold the government to account and see a lot more transparency around how and why these costs have escalated out of proportion.”

The Lib Dem conference will also see a focus on health and social care, with both Cooper’s speech on Sunday and leader Ed Davey’s speech on Tuesday putting health issues at the forefront.

“We've been campaigning very hard on the NHS and social care, I think every party is going to have to examine its policies very closely because of the challenges facing the NHS and social care since the last general election.”

“We will be intending to put out bold ideas, and my speech and Ed’s speech will start that process,” Cooper said, adding that her speech in particular will focus on mental health.

“One of the big problems we have at the moment is around access, we know that the vast majority of people who suffer with mental ill health suffer with it at a very, very young age.

“It's incredibly important that young people are able to access that care as soon as they can. So part of my speech today will be outlining precisely how we would deal with that access issue, particularly for young people.”

This conference could be the Liberal Democrats’ last one before the next general election, so the party will be using the opportunity to set out its national priorities, also including calling for greater windfall tax on big oil and gas companies and proposing a new industry study to look at high tech green jobs of the future.  

“Every single second that I have between now and polling day at the general election will be spent talking to people about our priorities, and not taking their votes for granted,” Cooper said.

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