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The Lib Dems have a community-led vision to tackle the housing crisis

(Alamy)

4 min read

Housing and planning policy continues to provoke controversy across the country. The United Kingdom desperately needs more homes, particularly ones that are good quality and affordable.

But instead, too many politicians are only interested in point-scoring, attacking their opponents as either NIMBYs who block any housebuilding, or as being in the pocket of developers who want to concrete over the countryside.

For years this Conservative government has paid lip service to increasing housebuilding, but then repeatedly U-turned when it has come under pressure from backbenchers who simply don’t want new homes built. 

We need the flexibility to protect beauty spots and at the same time allow building on land with little amenity value

One politically popular solution put forward is to build new homes on the green belt. However the debate has become deeply polarising. Rishi Sunak has pledged to protect the green belt, whilst Keir Starmer has said he would allow new homes to be built on it. Interestingly, a recent poll by Ipsos found 60 per cent of people in England favoured green belt preservation above providing for housing need, with just 21 per cent stating the opposite. Unfortunately public perception on this issue is too black and white. We need the flexibility to protect local popular beauty spots and at the same time allow building on unused fields or land with little amenity value. 

It is in this context that the Liberal Democrats, at our party conference, will launch our new policy paper: Tackling the Housing Crisis. This is our attempt to find a positive way forward in the face of a dysfunctional national debate.

The paper is positive about the need for new homes. It makes clear that councils should have well-evidenced 15-year housing targets – ensuring that there is no backsliding from building homes. Yet it also goes further: encouraging the expansion and strengthening of neighbourhood plans, including genuine engagement with local communities in finding innovative ways of providing more homes, and the sustainable expansion of existing towns.

As the former mayor of Watford, I’m well aware of how urban renewal and bringing back residential communities to town and city centres can be a sustainable housing solution that drives regeneration. But this can only work if it’s combined with investment in infrastructure too. The government’s controversial new infrastructure levy is said to address this, but it will take a decade to be fully implemented.

To deliver homes that people can genuinely afford, we need more social housing and, crucially, set targets for building these homes – empowering councils with more powers to borrow in order to build. It is scandalous that the delivery of social homes has been given such a low priority.

In England’s beauty spots, second homes and holiday lets pose another issue. People are of course entitled to buy second properties, but in some areas the market is so seriously skewed it prices out local people. Where councils can demonstrate that these homes are having a negative effect on their communities, they should have the power to take action to limit numbers if needed. 

National house building targets have been much debated. I have always felt that such targets are irrelevant as no government has succeeded in meeting them in decades. There are so many variables – a crude national target becomes at best a rhetorical device and at worst a hostage to fortune. 

There is no political leadership coming from the Conservative government, a serious abrogation of responsibility. Ministers are happy to use strong rhetoric, but have no real plan to deliver more homes at a price local people can afford. 

In Eastleigh, South Lakeland and Oadby and Wigston, Liberal Democrat-run councils have shown repeatedly that they are able to deliver the homes people need. We stand ready to empower local communities to build the right homes in the right places, which is vital if we are to end the housing crisis. 

 

Baroness Thornhill, Liberal Democrat peer

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