Last Monday the Lib Dems adopted a new housing policy. Unsurprisingly, the general public, national press and most of the party’s membership didn’t notice. It’s a pretty standard piece of Lib Demmery: a proposal for a new government investment bank, a reasonable sounding building target (300,000) and an extra tax on empty properties.
The party says a lot of good things about housing. At conference, comfortable baby-boomers wander through the exhibition hall talking about how it’s such a problem that millennials are unable to get onto the housing ladder. Every MP agrees that we really must start building more, and fringe events on urban planning have people crammed like sardines at the back and sitting two-abreast down the aisles.
But it’s all just a bit wet. If you took it upon yourself to ask where all these new houses might go, you’d struggle to find anyone with an adequate answer. Someone might offer up, “Well, obviously we should prioritise brownfield sites” and think that’s enough. Unfortunately, as much as we would all like it to be the case, you cannot will 4m new homes into existence by merely tinkering with the odd piece of regulation and asking that councils and developers learn how to get along better. Something drastic has to change.
It’s not as if the Lib Dems are without ideas. The youth wing of the Liberal Democrats is called the Young Liberals. As you would expect from a group of politically engaged under-26s, we’re all rather preoccupied over this whole housing thing and the fact that it is in crisis.
As we see it, the best solution is to end the urban containment policies which limit the size of cities — or, to phrase it in terms which would alarm the Campaign to Protect Rural England, to build on the greenbelt.
This is by no means the only housing-related cause worth supporting – but it is the best cause to push for, because it is one simple regulation which, if undone, could spur on mass house building without straining the public purse. It also means building homes near already existing infrastructure. And importantly, it undoes laws which keep the house prices of wealthy suburbanites appreciating while everyone else suffers.
Now the Liberal Democrats are professedly a radical party. Our septuagenarian party leader called himself a “free radical” in his memoirs. Our septuagenarian former party leader started offering a cash prize for “new, radical ideas”. Without fail, every policy debate has someone saying “this is exactly the sort of radical solution we should be supporting” (Bonus points if they also say “we as liberals”). So you would think that this youthful, radical solution would be exactly the sort of thing the party-establishment are keen to support.
But alas, our every attempt to see this on the conference floor sees it watered down with caveats upon concessions upon compromises until we have something vague about how green spaces inside urban settlements are more important than those around them.
If the party were really serious about empowering us as young members, they would probably pay heed to the one thing we have been consistently campaigning for. But when it comes down to it, for all their talk of building a youth army and supporting us as young Lib Dems, they find it a bit annoying whenever we ask for something other than another batch of leaflets to deliver. The quest for radical solutions to the country’s problems gets lost somewhere between begging for “more nuance” on every paper and our general debilitating (and appropriate) fear of populism.
And I suspect that they’re afraid of seriously attacking the housing crisis head-on – because it might spook the asseted classes, and we’ll lose some support in a leafy commuter town somewhere. And how on earth would we stop Brexit, without our opposition voice on the South Bucks district council?
The writer is a member of the Young Liberals, the youth wing of the Liberal Democrats.