This post was originally pitched to Lib Dem Voice, but it was rejected due to the disagreements of the editorial team. We have decided to publish it here to give a platform to this important perspective.
I cannot bring myself to campaign for Sarah Green and the Liberal Democrats this by-election. This isn’t because I don’t think she’ll be a better MP than another Boris stooge—of course she will. It’s not because I’m no longer a Liberal, nor have I left the party. The reason is one, simple, policy issue: housebuilding.
For me, the housing crisis is the defining policy issue of our generation. We have the opportunity to wrestle away the stranglehold that over-40s have over our economy and unlock a huge amount of economic potential. For decades now the percentage of young people owning their own home has plummeted as the greatest source of wealth in our country has become more and more concentrated in the hands of those over 65. Building more homes unlocks economic growth in the economy but—more importantly to Liberals—allows people to be free to live and work where they want, not be constrained by regional house prices.
Building higher density homes, close to transport links is also key to tackling the climate crisis. People who live in high-density housing with strong transport links have a much lower carbon footprint—this is an issue that Liberals should be leading on. If developers, councils or anyone else wants to build safe homes somewhere that there is demand for housing, then we should let them. Instead, we are abandoning the young at the merest hint of electoral advantage.
Both the climate crisis and the housing shortage are existential threats to the British economy. For decades we have completely failed to keep up with the demand for new houses across the country. Skyrocketing prices are the most obvious symptom of this, but sluggish growth, an economically disenfranchised generation and rapidly rising homelessness are all caused, directly or indirectly by our complete failure to build houses.
In a similar vein, we need to build long-term, high capacity and low-carbon transport links, like HS2. The new north-south link will be a boon to the economy of not just the UK, but the North of England specifically, an area that successive governments have failed to invest in. It’s a commitment to a green economy, one where growth and improving living standards go hand-in-hand with environmental protection, rather than coming at the expense of climate goals.
Opposition to HS2 comes either from misguided environmentalists, or worse, from rich homeowners feigning concern for “ancient forests” whilst caring only about their property value.
The Liberal Democrats are notoriously NIMBY. This is partially a result of having a “power base” consisting almost entirely of local councillors and partially because we represent an overwhelmingly white, affluent and home-owning constituency. Constantly we claim to support house-building but oppose development after development as “inappropriate for the local area” or complain it might destroy a field with a relatively ordinary view.
The Chesham and Amersham campaign exemplifies this. Nationally we talk a good game about tackling the housing crisis, but when it comes to putting our principles into practice we resort to spineless anti-developer rhetoric. The whole campaign has been fought over opposing HS2, and protecting the Chilterns from developers who evilly want to build housing in middle-class areas a short commute from London. These positions should be anathema to any truly Liberal party.
Liberals young and old harp on about the importance of building strong public transport links both to tackle rising inequality and global warming. To let a candidate, let alone one in a target by-election seat, oppose a key piece of green infrastructure like this should be enough to disqualify the Liberal Democrats from our claims of being committed to solving the climate crisis.
The Liberal Democrats claimed in 2019 that we would deliver over 300,000 houses per year, but this claim rings hollow when up and down the country our councillors and MPs oppose reasonable development reform that would take power away from wealthy homeowners and give it to the young, the homeless and the under-housed.
On Sarah Green’s website, one of her headline campaigns is a petition to “Protect the Chilterns” from “developers building wherever they want”. Instead, the Liberal Democrat who has every activist coming to fight for her claims to want “the right homes in the right places”. Translation: homes, but not in my back yard.
This isn’t even subtle NIMBYism. It is out there in the open: vote Lib Dem, protect your house price.
One extra Lib Dem in the commons isn’t going to be the deciding vote on these issues; but a stunning rebuke delivered to Boris on the basis only of NIMBYism will make it even harder to see any planning reform passed this parliament. The currently proposed planning laws are flawed, but nonetheless crucially important to tackling our housing crisis. However, if Tories in supposedly safe seats come to believe they are vulnerable, any chance of passing reasonable housing reform in this parliament will be dead in the water.
On balance, I would rather Sarah be elected than another regressive Tory sycophant. But I cannot in good conscience campaign on a platform that I know is actively damaging the life chances of my entire generation.