The publication of the long-awaited Housing Paper came on Monday in preparation for the Liberal Democrats’ Autumn Conference in Bournemouth. The paper promises multiple policies including; providing for less car-centric planning through integrated planning, the development of 10 garden cities, and the introduction of Private Rental Sector registration. There is some ambition in the Housing Paper, but look it’s impossible to ignore its: ambivalence toward a National Housing Target.
It was only two years ago, when the online Autumn Conference passed the “Building Communities” motion, vowing for 380,000 houses a year – a target more ambitious than the Government’s own 300,000 houses target at the time. While this was an ambitious target, well above the 200,000 completions we are heading towards, it might not be enough A recent Centre for Cities report published in February 2023 concluded that if we want to meet housing shortfalls, we would need to immediately increase our house building capabilities to 442,000 houses per year over 25 years, or 654,000 houses per year to close the gap in 10 years.
Rejecting targets of 380,000 is indicative of the paper’s dire lack of ambition. Key drivers of the housing crisis like government subsidies for housing demand barely get a mention, while they use the same, tired excuses for opposing more housebuilding like complaints about the council housing stock and concerns over net zero.
The issue becomes, what does the rejecting housing targets achieve? The paper is clear that we should still have local housing targets, and local authorities would be required to submit their 15-year plans to the Planning Inspectorate for approval for the local area. This in part is fine – we cannot expect all housing to be concentrated in London, Birmingham or Leeds, and leave other smaller towns out of the picture without infrastructure upgrades. But it still doesn’t tackle the core issue that local officials are incentivised to cave to NIMBY demands because they rely on existing property owners’ votes. Without input from the central government, housing supply will never meet overall demand. The maintenance of a national housing target is an effective signal to local authorities on how far behind we have come with our housing needs, and what we would need to do to ensure that we are not crowding out young people who will instead find themselves trapped with their parents or family, limiting their ability for career progression.
Without additional housing, we cannot justify additional lab space and infrastructure in Cambridge and Oxford as talented young professionals will be unable to move and conduct research. We cannot justify University expansions without fears of students beyond their first year being priced out alongside any person looking to move within or into these university towns and cities for business. Without proper housing, we cannot justify our humanitarian obligation to house asylum seekers and new migrants – feeding into right-wing and tabloid fear-mongering. The aim for 150,000 new social houses a year is a noble goal that enables those starting off anew here or who haven’t yet had the opportunity for skills-broadening.
There is a certain negativity here about the Housing Paper and might not be fair on the promises it holds, which are in line with our liberal values. Even the 2021 Communities paper maintained our support for a Land Value Tax as opposed to a Commercial Landowner Levy..
If we cannot achieve accurate land rent valuation for residential land short term, we should instead embrace revaluation wholesale with our aims for Land registration whilst pursuing something like a Proportional Property Tax.
We support the end of the archaic leasehold system, instead supporting commonhold. We do not, however, support phasing-out leasehold for commonhold altogether, which would reduce certainty for prospective occupiers on what system they may move into. Where we are arguing for greater densification and integrated planning, we need to be clear about the role flats will play as a desirable development against the moves for car dependency. But all of this cannot be made clear without the primary signal to the nation on our house-building aims.
It was Sam Bowman and John Myers who first remarked that there is a “Housing Theory of Everything” to our systematic woes. As a party, we seem to recognise that Planning is a problem and want to address its structure. But in rejecting the national housing targets, we stray away from the idea of a Housing Theory of Everything, or rather, a liberal, more encompassing “Planning Theory of Everything”, and continue to fail communities across England in spite of our house building successes.
That’s why Liberal Reform will continue to work with Liberal Democrat groups to oppose the wording brought forward in the motion accompanying the Housing Paper at Bournemouth and maintain the commitments won in the 2021 motion.