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Infrastructure blog

Housing targets dominate the debate at the UK Liberal Democrat Conference 2023

03 October 2023

The ICE attended the Lib Dem party conference in Bournemouth to promote the institution’s work and listen to infrastructure debates.

Housing targets dominate the debate at the UK Liberal Democrat Conference 2023
Party leader Ed Davey MP wanted to change the national housebuilding target, but party members voted to keep the 380,000 goal. Image credit: UK Parliament (licensed under CC BY 3.0.)

Despite being the first since the 2019 general election, this year's Liberal Democrat (Lib Dem) Autumn Conference will likely be the last before the next UK general election - widely expected in 2024.

As such, the debate focused on the party’s plans for government, or if no single political party wins a majority, then hung Parliament negotiations.

The party published a pre-manifesto and held debates by members on their priorities for government.

Here are the top conference takeaways for infrastructure and the built environment.


The party's leadership was defeated by 'grassroots' members on plans to reduce national targets for housebuilding in England.

Previous Lib Dem policy proposed a national housebuilding target of 380,000.

However, party leader Ed Davey MP wanted to change this to 150,000 social homes instead, arguing that national targets have failed to work and that 'developer-led' schemes didn't provide proper amenities.

However, party members voted to retain the target of 380,000, arguing that more housing is a critical national need.

The ICE explored the link between infrastructure and housing in our 2019 State of the Nation report.

Our report contained several recommendations on evolving the planning system to better align national housing targets with local decision-making while ensuring that infrastructure needs (or amenities) for new housing are factored in at the start.

An earlier net zero target

The pre-manifesto document includes a plan to bring forward the net zero target from 2050 to 2045.

This would be delivered in part by increasing investment in renewables so that "80% of the UK's electricity is generated from renewables by 2030".

The party would also focus on retrofitting housing by giving free retrofits to 'low-income' homes and tax incentives for other homes.

This would help to increase the energy efficiency of the UK's housing stock while helping to reduce energy bills.

Pledges also included creating a 'Net Zero Delivery Authority' that cuts across national and local government and strengthening the power of local authorities so they can mandate new homes having solar panels or promote community energy.

Going faster on net zero is possible, but it will require tough choices and significant investment to make it happen.

The ICE previously set out energy efficiency and demand reduction as the low-hanging fruit being ignored in the political debate on net zero.

The need for better coordination across government on net zero policy is something we've also highlighted, so it’s good to see these requirements picked up in the Lib Dems’ pre-manifesto work.

Transport pledges focus on reducing emissions

Transport pledges by the Lib Dems included:

  • completing the electrification of Britain's rail network;
  • reopening closed stations;
  • supporting the switch to electric vehicles; and
  • "[transforming] how people travel by creating new cycling and walking networks separate from motorised traffic".

Transport is the main source of carbon emissions, and its contribution is growing.

Without tackling this growth, the UK will struggle to get to the net zero target by 2050, let alone 2045.

Some of the pledges are a good start, but the ICE would prefer to see parties moving away from picking projects or programmes and instead set out a coherent and long-term framework for transport investment.

A National Transport Strategy could end the stop-start approach to investment.

What's missing?

High Speed 2 and the Integrated Rail Plan were noticeably absent from the document.

Previously, the Liberal Democrats promoted the scheme as an alternative to the need for a third runway at Heathrow (also missing).

The ICE had previously briefed the Lib Dem transport team on the Integrated Rail Plan for the Midlands and North.

We suggested that the IRP had "the potential to transform public transport in the North and Midlands and deliver benefits to the whole UK."

The UK prime minister recently set out a scaling back of some net zero targets, with the concern being that there would be a public backlash.

All parties must consider how to take the public on the net zero journey through engagement as net zero will require behaviour change.

This focus on people was missing from the Lib Dem pre-manifesto, even if the proposals for dealing with carbon emissions were noteworthy.

What about climate resilience and adaptation?

Climate resilience and adaptation are the biggest gap in the Lib Dem pre-manifesto document.

While it recognises that "climate change is the biggest threat to human existence", it fails to recognise that it already exists and makes no reference to climate resilience or adaptation.

Lib Dem MPs have previously used ICE lines to raise questions on climate adaptation so it’s disappointing that climate resilience and adaptation aren’t mentioned as a focus area for investment.

The ICE will also be at the Conservative and Labour party conferences, and we will be sharing our thoughts on the debates from both in the coming weeks.

Public engagement and net zero

The ICE and All-Party Parliamentary Group for Infrastructure (APPGI) will soon begin a programme of work on public engagement and net zero to better understand how to find solutions to public behaviour change.

Contact [email protected] if you want to find out more.

  • Chris Richards, director of policy at Institution of Civil Engineers