York Lib Dems recently scored an impressive victory in a local by-election. When Lib Dem Voice reported the result, as well as congratulations some commenters expressed concern about how the result had been achieved. Matt Hemsley wrote that:
Obviously this result is pleasing.
But it does appear – especially from the quote from the Council Group Leader – that yet again a major premise of our campaign is about preventing the building of houses. This comes shortly after our conference, where we outlined the need to build 300,000 houses a year to meet housing demand.
While I am sure someone from York will explain to me why “this development was not the right one for York”, there is an increasingly wide disconnect between our national narrative and our local narrative in many places across the country. If we are serious about building more homes, we’ll also need to campaign for building them; and work to get them built.
Predictably people from York did indeed pop up pleading that this was the wrong development. But that’s the point: when in opposition all developments are the wrong development. The political incentives make that almost inevitable.
There is a mismatch between social and electoral benefits. The gains of better, cheaper and more plentiful houses are substantial and real. The loses are generally modest – such the loss of unremarkable farmland – or chimerical like the notion of putting pressure on local services. The people who would live in those houses have to live somewhere and use the services there! However, those who would have lived in the houses that weren’t built will probably never realise but their prospective neighbours would be bound to.
And believe me I understand this temptation. I’ve taken part in – and quite possibly initiated – campaigns against developments. But even putting the dubious ethics aside this might not ultimately be the most effective way to get Lib Dems elected. As Mr Hemsley pointed out we are trying to promote a national narrative around housing and if that succeeds people are going to start noticing the dissonance.
And that would be a problem. We are trying to rebuild our credibility and need to be vigilant for things that might make us appear hypocritical. Housing is also an ideal issue to mend bridge with young voters who are the closest to us in terms in values but the most alienated from us.
That seems like a lot to sacrifice for the sake of boosting local campaigns. Especially given that a number of local parties have married electoral success with ambitious homebuilding programs: