Continuing my series of blogs on the parties’ pre-election policies on greenbelt housebuilding, I now turn to the Liberal Democrats. I admit to a personal interest here, as I am a LibDem member and activist.
‘Pre-Manifesto” Housing Policy
The LibDems have not yet published their formal election Manifesto, but they have issue a “Pre-Manifesto” (you can read it here: http://www.libdems.org.uk/policy_paper_121), which does contain a housing policy. The policy includes a target to build 300,000 houses a year, the most ambitious of all the parties. Their key proposal for meeting this target is to publish a long-term plan during the first year of the next Parliament which will set out how the goal is to be achieved. The plan will include proposals for “at least ten new ‘garden cities’ in England, in areas where there is local support”. The policy highlights the need for more affordable housing and promises to help social housing providers including councils to build more affordable homes to rent. As for land supply, the LibDems will require local authorities to allocate land to meet 15 years’ housing need in their local plans.
There is no reference in the Pre-Manifesto to building on greenbelt land, and it is frankly short on detail as to how the Party would meet its 300,000 homes a year target. A little more flesh was put on the bones of the policy at the Annual Conference in Glasgow during October, when Nick Clegg said the LibDems would build five garden cities on a new railway line between Oxford and Cambridge. Vince Cable, a very influential figure in the Party, also suggested at a fringe meeting that land could be better used for housing than for golf courses (to the predictable outrage of golfers!), and that it was unrealistic to rely on brownfield land for all new developments. Perhaps more significant, Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander told a fringe meeting that central government should be given the power to build new homes, a “truly radical approach” which could help address the structural under supply of housing (as reported in The Guardian on 8th October). The idea that central government should take a stronger role in driving new development was also echoed by Vince Cable (as reported in The Telegraph on 7th October).
We will see if Vince Cable’s and Danny Alexander’s proposals for a greater role for central government are reflected in the Party’s final election Manifesto. However, I would be surprised to see any reference to building on the greenbelt as such.
Opinion within the Party
Based on conversations with other LibDem members and activists, and my reading of articles and comments on the website LibDem Voice (www.libdemvoice.org), I would say that opinion on greenbelt building within the Party is to say the least ambivalent. Many members are in favour of it, but many are against. A comment by David Evershed on a September 2014 article in the website expresses this ambivalence succinctly:
“The reason house prices are high is because planning permission is rationed, which means development land prices are high (about 50% of the cost of a house) and new house supply is limited.
The reason planning permission is rationed is our own choice. We don’t like new developments on green fields and we don’t like damaging the environment or the ecology. As a result political parties will not allow a free-for-all with planning approval.
The price we all pay to get the restricted planning approval we want is high house prices. We just have to decide the right balance between what we want for house prices and what we want for the planning approval system. We can’t have both. It is a trade off.”
This is exactly the way in which Party leaders and Ministers should be communicating with the public. We will not get the number of houses we say we need unless we change the planning system. Vince Cable and Danny Alexander were certainly hinting at this in their comments to fringe meetings at the Conference, but our Party leaders will need to go further than this if they expect to get public buy-in to any major changes to the planning system after the election.