There are few policies more shameful for the Liberal Democrats than our local parties’ seemingly unshakeable obsession with opposing the building of houses. It is an inclination which plagues our literature and our local output up and down the country, and yet is directly contradictory to our liberal principles and our fundamental ideological belief in a more equitable and free society.
It persists because, as I wrote last week, our local parties are increasingly retreating to the comforting ground of hyper-localism, an approach which is devoid of the substance of liberalism. They know that the people who vote in local elections are older, well-off homeowners, whose desire to protect their house prices or their view can be exploited to electoral effect. Despite our manifesto’s repeated commitment to building more homes nationally, the frequent refrain locally is one of “can’t they be built somewhere else?”.
Many local parties will protest at this characterisation. I have seen debates on this topic rage on within the party, with those who defend this approach claiming that they don’t oppose all housebuilding – just the particular developments in their communities. It is, apparently, a massive coincidence that every proposal, no matter where it is, is unsuitable, and should be vociferously opposed. And a massive coincidence that, with very few exceptions, local parties do not campaign in favour of developments, or make building more houses in their areas a central priority come election-time. It is an illiberal cop-out.
The opposition is always explained away as a matter of insufficient infrastructure, or opposing entire developments because of a lack of affordable housing in them. This is frequently true, but is no reason not to build. The infrastructure will come – it always does. And with inflated house prices being a supply-side issue, building more will bring down prices (something to be celebrated) and make areas more affordable for all. Letting the perfect be the enemy of the good is rarely the best solution; least of all where housing is at stake.
Part of the reason for this is a fundamental problem at the heart of our party’s conception of liberalism. Too many have deluded themselves into thinking that some kind of ‘consultative liberalism’, which sees liberalism as entirely to do with implementing what other people want, and being a mere vessel for the principles and answers of others without providing any principles or answers of our own, is what we believe, or what we should stand for. It is neither.
My column last week received a frosty reception from some of those who adopt community politics as an article of faith, but unfortunately, none of those who criticised my piece were able to articulate any compelling explanation for what is so liberal about community politics. There were some woolly assertions of ‘listening to residents’ – but they fall foul of the criticism I have just outlined. Listening to residents is not inherently liberal. If residents want reactionary or conservative things, and we implement them on the grounds that we have ‘listened’, then that is to turn ourselves into reactionaries and conservatives.
It is my opinion that opposition to housebuilding is precisely this: a reactionary, conservative embarrassment. It protects those with wealth and power, and does it to the detriment and disempowerment of the young, the poor and the disadvantaged. It takes no responsibility, shoving the problem onto other people in other areas, and denies the gravity of the problem, which is deepening the divisions and inequities of our society.
Liberalism is about freedom. But you cannot be free to live your life as you choose without the necessary prerequisites of personal and financial security. If this is true – and it is – then forcing millions into the uncertainty and insecurity of renting dilapidated properties from unscrupulous landlords, at whose momentary whim they can be cast out, is a disgrace. It would be a disgrace for any party, for any politician. But it is a particular disgrace for a party such as ours, the successor to the long and liberatory tradition of British liberalism, which sings the anti-landlord anthem “The Land” at its conferences, and which alone in politics has at the heart of its constitution a call for individual liberation and freedom.
There is another way. As we rebuild, let’s take this opportunity to clear out from our local parties the embarrassing stain on our liberal credentials that is our opposition to building houses. Let’s make sure our local parties actively and loudly support more houses being built than they oppose. And let’s stand up for the rights and interests of the neediest rather than protecting the already-powerful and already-wealthy.
To do otherwise would be to turn away from what liberalism demands and what the people who need us require. And, after years in the wilderness; years searching for a purpose and a natural constituency, this is something we can afford to do no longer.
Gracchus is a new columnist for The Torch, writing under a pseudonym. They hold a minor position within the Liberal Democrats.
Image credit: The Telegraph