The Lib Dem yimby takeover

This week, Lib Dem members defied the leadership to vote for a national housing target of 380,000 new homes a year. This could be a turning point

September 27, 2023
The Lib Dem leadership was defeated in a housing vote at party conference. Image: JEP News / Alamy Stock Photo
The Lib Dem leadership was defeated in a housing vote at party conference. Image: JEP News / Alamy Stock Photo

An unusual thing happened at this week’s Lib Dem conference. The yimbys took on the nimbys and the yimbys won. It may signify something big and new in British politics. 

The issue was national housing targets and the debate was basically between the young(er) and old(er) activists. The Lib Dem party leadership, reflecting years of nimby local campaigning by councillors and candidates, opposed a national housing target of 380,000 new homes a year because this might force local councils to accept unpopular largescale development. Enter the Young Liberals with a well-organised campaign to embrace housing targets for precisely that reason: to force new development as a way of tackling the housing crisis affecting young adults in particular. After an impassioned debate on the conference floor in Bournemouth, the YLs won, decisively. They even had a lot of the grey hairs voting for them by the end. 

There are five points of significance in the Battle of Bournemouth. 

First, the young are getting politically organised, and around the issue of justice for the young. The last time the Young Liberals were this vocal and active was when Peter Hain was disrupting South Africa test cricket matches in the 1970s, campaigning against apartheid. The social divisions enraging today’s YLs are at home not abroad. 

Second, housing is shooting up the political agenda, after a generation of national political indifference except for the Tory mission to privatise council housing without replacing it. When Tim Farron, the former Lib Dem leader whose constituency includes the Lake District, tried to argue that national housing targets were “Thatcherite” as a free-market “developers’ charter”, he was booed. He was defaulting to an old riff which no longer chimes. There can, of course, be no housing without developers, so it is a question of priorities, even if some developers happen to be rapacious Thatcherites. As it happens, quite a few aren’t, and anyway no one is proposing to write local authorities out of the script when it comes to planning their localities, even if the reluctant or recalcitrant are required to provide more housing. 

Third, it is telling that it should be Young Liberals, largely a zealous bunch of southern metropolitan and Home Counties students and young professionals, leading the charge. It is equally telling that their target was housing, where they want not a free lunch but the right to any lunch at all. The YLs didn’t campaign at Bournemouth against, for example, university tuition fees, which they know are here to stay whatever official Lib Dem policy. 

Fourth, Farron and the Lib Dem leadership didn’t oppose all national housing targets. They supported a target for social housing of 150,000 a year, a huge increase in current provision, involving local authorities once again becoming major new housing providers after a generation since Thatcher when they were in effect banned from doing so. Social justice rhetoric always sways the high-minded Lib Dem faithful, and Ed Davey was trying to differentiate between good and bad intervention from national government to enforce new housing. But making a division between social housing (good) and all other housing (bad) is untenable because of the national shortage. 

Fifth, the Lib Dem transformation from nimby to yimby will help tip the balance in the other parties too. Grassroots Lib Dem activists and councillors are among the most vociferous and populist campaigners against new housing at the first hint of local opposition, which they often precipitate, particularly in the southern England “blue wall” where huge sums of money—and votes—are often at stake between the winners and losers in nimby/yimby confrontations. 

The Johnson/Sunak decision to abandon national housing targets, which led to this Bournemouth debate, was precisely to avoid the charge of Thatcherite Tories concreting over the Home Counties. Maybe Sunak and his Tory leadership successors will now be receptive to more bricks, if not concrete. Michael Gove, the housing secretary, recently announced a new town adjacent to Cambridge, and the plan appears to be surviving politically. Cambridge is almost totemic for its shortage of housing and facilities for biotech and medical industry and research. But maybe where Cambridge leads, Oxford, Brighton, Guildford, Reading and Milton Keynes might follow, to mention just a few acute housing pressure spots. Ditto policies to radically densify London and other cities with acute housing shortages. 

Labour is already committed to national housing targets, so the Lib Dem shift could be doubly significant if there is Lib-Labbery after the next election. Ironically the tension between the two parties might be on social housing, where Labour has no target to match the 150,000, and will be very wary of one in its caution to avoid new public spending commitments. 

So the Battle of Bournemouth may be a turning point in the debate between nimbys and yimbys. But there is a minor detail. Where are the developers who are going to provide these 380,000 homes a year? Nothing like that number has been achieved since the 1960s. Indeed, that is the only decade in the last century when it has ever been delivered. And when these numbers were reached in the 1960s, how did it happen? Yes, by local authorities building 150,000 new homes a year.