What could a Liberal Democrat resurgence mean for Planning and Development?

All of a sudden, the Liberal Democrats seem to have a whole lot going in their favour. A new energetic leader; European and local election success; a by-election win in a leave leaning seat; and a number of new MP’s joining there ranks from across Parliament. The narrative around the Party had been one of decline but things have not been this good for the Liberals since Clegg-mania in 2010. We have taken a look at where the Liberal Democrats could consolidate power and what this could mean for planning and development.

Jo Swinson is the first female leader of the party. Young and highly personable, she is both telegenic and has ministerial experience. Critically, Swinson has also shown an early willingness to work across party lines in an attempt to win over disenfranchised Labour and Conservative voters. Her only electoral test to date has been the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election where the party overturned a majority of some 8,000 in a 12 per cent swing from the Conservatives in a marginally leave- supporting-seat. This has built on the momentum gained by the party in both the 2019 council and European elections where the party achieved seven hundred net new councillors, a historic number of Liberal Democrat MEPs with 16 in total and London became a Lib Dem City for the first time in a national election, with 27.2% of the vote in the city.

Where can the Liberal Democrats consolidate these successes?

There are 20 parliamentary constituencies where the party needs fewer than 10,000 votes to win, and it has selected candidates in 15 of them so far. If we take the swing achieved in the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election the Liberal Democrats have a chance of winning thirteen more seats from the Tories and some seven further seats, mainly from Labour. The key seats in contention on this basis include Richmond Park, Sheffield Hallam, Southwark & Old Bermondsey, St. Albans, St. Ives and Chichester. Based on recent polling, some are predicting the Liberal Democrats having as many as 43 MP’s in any election, potentially enough to be a coalition partner and holding a huge influence in national policy.

While quite far off, turning to the local council elections scheduled for 2022, there are good opportunities for the Liberal Democrats to win back many wards which have been lost over the previous decade. The party currently controls three borough councils: Richmond Upon Thames, Kingston and Sutton and if things stay as they are, they will likely hold these councils and increase their majority in Richmond and Kingston as has been shown in ward council by-elections since 2018. Sutton is complicated by the fact that Sutton is a marginally a leave seat so is vulnerable to a Conservative swing if Brexit is resolved, but the smart money would be on the council to remain under Liberal control.

In North London there is also an opportunity to make significant in-roads into Labour boroughs like Camden and Haringey. The Liberal Democrats previously controlled Camden as the largest party in the 2000s and although the party has never been in control of Haringey, they performed strongly in the 2018 local elections and have an opportunity to expand their hold in wards like Muswell Hill and Crouch End.

South of the river there is an opportunity for the Liberals to diminish the Labour majority in Southwark and if they have a good enough night then possibly take the council to no overall control with Labour as the largest party. There are also opportunities for the Liberal Democrats in London Boroughs that they have previously controlled including Lambeth, Brent and even Islington; though without any current councillors in these three boroughs, it will certainly be an uphill battle.

What could this mean for Planning and Development?

Outside of Brexit, national policy is focused on improving connectivity whether by new mass transport or super-fast broadband. There is also an emphasis on making cities and towns liveable for people and not cars, stressing more pedestrian and cycle routes and less roads and parking spaces. The party advocates joined up development, in which schemes must improve local services and infrastructure in the immediate local area. While the national party leadership seems comfortable with density and height this does not always translate locally, in South West London where the party is in control both density and height have been resisted on a number of developments.
The Liberal Democrats are known as the ‘yellow peril’ to Labour and Conservative Party activists up and down the country because of their tendency to focus election campaigns on ‘aggressive pavement politics’, a tactic that centres around council services and local issues. In this respect, Liberal Democrat campaigns at council level have often tried to organise and mobilise local opposition to developments to win support.

History shows us what to expect from Liberal Democrat controlled councils, despite the national party making pro-development noises and talking up the need to tackle the housing crisis by approving new money and powers to build council housing, approving developments of all sizes and tenancies. In reality the Liberal Democrats are a locally issue based party and their base find it near impossible to resist their ‘nimby’ instincts.

The truly small ‘d’ democratic nature of their local parties means that Councillors find it all too easy to resist pressure from the national party to act on housing. In boroughs like Richmond, Kingston and Sutton, the Liberal Democrats have some of the poorest records of housing delivery and planning permissions approved in the Capital.

The party claim that their record is not anti-development and that the problem is geographical not political as their councils are surrounded by green belt which is protected and constrains their ability to develop land.

While it is true that the availability of land and how greenbelt is currently classified is a significant factor, it does not explain why in Richmond planning permission approvals for developments not on protected land stands at 33%, the lowest in London and one of the lowest in the country. The aspects of schemes that are most attractive to developers such as density and height are antithetical to the South West middle-class Londoners who vote Liberal in elections.

What we know from examining the planning and housing records of previous Liberal Democrat councils like, Islington, Merton, Lambeth, Camden, Southwark and Haringey is that any planning permission comes with a number of cumbersome conditions (this is a big statement to make. Either back it up with facts of take it out) providing a further disincentive to development. This has given the party a reputation in many places as being anti-development.

Due to hyper-local nature of the Liberal Democrats they have developed a reputation being somewhat anti-development. It is a tried and tested tactic of the party to take an unpopular local scheme and make opposing it the centre of the election campaign. For example, in Richmond, opposing a massive Conservative approved housing scheme became a totemic policy for the Liberals which helped the Liberals taking back the council in 2018.

However, there are measures that the development community can take as part of their plans which Liberal Democrat Councillors and the national party are attracted to:

  1. Including community projects, schools, clinics and more infrastructure and environmental projections into their schemes will mean a scheme will be looked upon much more favourably.
  2. Schemes must keep the local character of an area as must as possible. There is a heavy emphasis on ‘beauty’ and sustainability in planning policy documents written by local Councillors and MPs.
  3. The local and national party is in agreement is on the need for affordability in any new housing stock and the need for new social housing. The threshold for new development is between 30-50% affordable or social housing for any scheme.

It is also the case that outside of London things may be different. Concilio is working on a major new town development in South Cambs, where the Council went from Conservative to Liberal Democrat control in 2018, which was a surprise vote. The new Leadership has been far more pragmatic than the previous Conservative Council but expects in return a far stronger commitment to making the car a secondary movement choice and a minimum of 30% affordable housing. Neither were priorities for the previous administration,

Electorally, things are looking up for the Liberal Democrats and politics is going through a realignment where leave-remain is becoming more dominant then the traditional left-right axis. However, politics has never been more volatile and a Liberal Democrat fightback is heavily contingent on events. What this means for planning and development is still, for the most part unclear, but given their track record, the Liberal Democrats in London may prove to be more anti-development than other Parties if they make significant headways in Local Authorities or even the GLA.


By Steffan Williams