Well done to Sarah Green. With the Tories riding high in the polls, it was a sensational by-election success and points to the Liberal Democrat rekindling their place as the political party of protest, which they lost when they entered the coalition with Cameron.
The election was won on opposition to HS2 and the Government’s housebuilding plans. One Tory voter told the Times “We’re all nimby here, we’d love the houses to be built elsewhere.”
Many Conservatives have accused the Lib Dems of blatant opportunism, but the Conservatives promised to designate the Chilterns a National Park in a desperate ploy to shore up its vote. The reality is when you put politicians together with voters, opportunism is never far away from the mix.
The bigger question is what impact will this by-election have in the medium term? By-elections come and go. Governing Parties tend to do badly, protest parties pick up votes but Government goes on.
Yet, it is difficult not to conclude that this result will add to the anxieties of Tory Councillors and Tory MPs where planning and development are significant issues. It sure makes Robert Jenrick’s task of building 300,000 homes a year a damn sight tougher.
There are potentially 100 seats, like Chesham and Amersham, in this category. They are overwhelmingly Tory, but vulnerable to a Lib Dem (or Labour, Green, Resident) challenge. Many have experienced significant demographic change in recent years with younger, university educated, Remain-minded voters moving in. They are mainly, but not exclusively, in London’s suburbs and the Home Counties – the Tory blue wall.
They also happen to be the main battleground for planning and development, and as this political battle intensifies, the pressure to say NO will only grow at both a local and national level.
Yet, there is paradox here. Polls show that a majority of people – 57% – actually support new homes in their area, but their voices are rarely heard in this debate. Support is growing across all demographics, although hardly surprising, it is much stronger among younger voters and those who rent.
What’s more, only a tiny minority of naysayers get involved in the planning process, yet they have an excessive influence on planning outcomes.
It is for this reason that I came together with others to establish Just Build Homes – a digital platform to connect supporters of house building with decision makers and the planning process. Thousands have already signed up and we are now working to build support for individual planning applications with major successes.
Over the last few years, there has been an explosion of YIMBY groups and organisations such as Priced Out led by the brilliant Anya Martin who are highlighting the inequities of our failure to build enough homes. They have united a generation of activists from across the political spectrum.
The housing crisis is getting worse. By 2026, only a quarter of people aged 25-34 will own their own home. Today, it will cost you at least seven times your salary to buy your first home. If you live in London, that rises to eleven times your salary.
The only way to change this is to build more homes.
Just Build Homes has spent the past year testing messaging that will motivate this group. We’ve learned a huge amount, and now understand why the industry has universally failed to mobilise this willing audience.
Curiously, as the Lib Dems grew their vote in Chesham and Amersham, leaders of the Youth Liberal Democrats took to social media to announce they were refusing to participate in an election campaign grounded in NIMBY prejudices. Freddie Poser, the former Chair of Cambridge University Liberal Democrats wrote “shockingly NIMBY letter from the Chesham and Amersham Lib Dems to voters. This party should be ashamed of itself.”
The lesson from the Chesham and Amersham by-election is that if the development industry fails to mobilise supporters of new homes, it can forget pro-development planning reforms – it will find the planning environment becoming even more challenging.
For more information about Just Build Homes, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
This article is written by Wyn Evans, Managing Director of Forty Shillings and a founder member of Just Build Homes.