Clear yellow water

There are some fine words on housing this week from the Liberal Democrats but do they amount to any more than just words?

The policy paper they endorsed at their annual conference in Brighton yesterday reads like it has been plucked from the wish list of the housing organisations campaigning jointly under the banner of Homes for Britain. And the Lib Dem rejection of the planning liberalisation proclaimed by what I have now come to think of as the Conservatories differentiates the governing parties still further. I’m not sure I’d want to go too close to it but there is now some clear yellow water.

Yet even as the Lib Dems call for housebuilding to be trebled to 300,000 homes a year it’s hard to forget that they also endorsed the coalition’s 65 per cent cut in affordable housing investment.

And even as they were voting on how much localism should apply to the regulation of private landlords, it’s hard not to remember that they voted to allow local discretion on the further marketisation of social housing too.

As I’ve argued before, it’s difficult to discern distinctly Liberal Democrat policies on housing in government so far. In fairness, the real impact may be on what we have not seen: even bigger cuts in housing benefit and further deregulation of environmental standards were two examples quoted at the conference this week. It’s likely too that the fact that the latest housebuilding strategy did not include a complete holiday on section 106 contributions for developers and did include extra funding for affordable homes to compensate for the more limited deregulation were the result of Lib Dem pressure.

In terms of the bigger picture though, with some honourable exceptions, Lib Dem MPs have held their nose and voted for policies they oppose, justifying it to themselves on the grounds that they want more ‘localism’. There is indeed a balance to be struck (as they did in the conference vote this week calling for national licensing of letting agents but local licensing of landlords) but they have allowed Grant Shapps in particular to undermine social housing under the guise of ‘localism’ while the Conservatories retain the right to impose changes they want from above (the ‘muscular localism’ of Eric Pickles) and castigate councils who disagree with them.

That said, delegates speaking in the debate yesterday expressed real commitment to tackling the housing crisis and the policy paper they agreed contains excellent ideas on everything from second homes to land value tax and changing the public borrowing rules to quantitative easing for housing.

That followed explicit support from business secretary Vince Cable for more social housing. ‘The private market will only heal slowly,’ he said on Monday. ‘Because mortgages are scarce. What we need is an aggressive programme of house building by housing associations and local councils, with government providing guarantees so they can build, in large numbers, now. We need an extra 100,000 houses a year to meet demand.’

This at least was an ackowledgement that we need something radically different to boost housebuilding, not just a continued assumption that subsidising housebuiiders will do the trick.

The only trouble is that it’s not at all clear that Clegg is actually listening. It’s hard to see how such a plan could work without a fundamental break with the coalition’s Plan A that he seems unwilling to make.

Clegg began conference week with his mad scheme to prop up house prices by putting people’s pensions at risk. He talked tough about only agreeing to more cuts in welfare if the Conservatories agree to a mansion tax but that really just left the door open to more cuts. And, given the chance to set out a distinctively Lib Dem position on housing in his conference speech yesterday, his only reference to it was a restatement of what the government is already doing on housebuilding guarantees.

Next week it’s over to Labour to see if it has anything concrete to offer. Ever since the election the party has been a policy-free zone on housing. It’s way past time it filled the vacuum.


4 Comments on “Clear yellow water”

  1. “There are some fine words on housing this week from the Liberal Democrats but do they amount to any more than just words?”

    Short answer: No!

    If the Liberals told me my name was Derick – I would check the owld birth certificate immediately

  2. julesbirch says:

    That’s harsh, Derick, but, as my gran used to say, fine words butter no parsnips.

  3. Paul Smith says:

    Don’t eat yellow snow

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