United nation

Originally posted on March 7 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Campaigners gather in the capital city for a pre-election rally to call for decisive action on the housing crisis. Sound familiar?

But this is not Homes for Britain or London and it’s no longer March 2015. Instead this happened on Friday in Cardiff and it’s Homes for Wales.

The campaigns are clearly related – both are aimed at all the political parties, both are supported by a coalition of housing associations and other housing organisations – but there are differences too.

The Homes for Britain rally happened in a big hall with speakers from the housing world and beyond and from all the main political parties. For all the energy and enthusiasm of the day, it left itself open to the accusation that this was just another example of the sector gathering to congratulate itself about how wonderful it is.

In contrast, campaigners for Homes for Wales gathered on the steps of the Senedd Building in Cardiff Bay for speeches before marching through the streets of the capital for a rally in the heart of the pedestrianised city centre. For a couple of hours, shoppers could watch video messages from the political parties, Welsh celebrities such as Michael Sheen and people with personal experience of the housing crisis. Up to 700 people took part and it was the first housing march that anyone could remember in Wales. For more about the campaign see this piece by Kevin Howell.

Cardiff is not London. Security is too tight at the Houses of Parliament to allow people on to the front steps. Homes for Britain was also preceded by a much more visible relay through England on a double decker bus with events in communities along the way. But housing still felt as though it was facing outwards rather than inwards at Homes for Wales and more willing to engage with the voters rather than itself.

And the political results will almost certainly be different too. Housing was high on the agenda in Britain in 2015 and the election result has generated radical changes in policy in England – but not ones that many people in the hall wanted.

Grant Shapps was booed at the rally by a sector outraged by the Conservatives’ plan to extend the Right to Buy to housing associations. One year, an unexpected Tory majority and a voluntary deal later and many of those in the hall are busy preparing for exactly that. With housing more salient as a political issue than for years, it seems too harsh to call Homes for Britain a complete failure, but the smell of success is not especially sweet either.

It’s hard to see anything like that happening in Wales. First, the polls say Labour is all but certain to be the main party in the new Assembly, though a coalition seems the likeliest outcome. True, the polls forecast a coalition at Westminster too, but the electoral system is very different.

Second, the politics of housing in Wales is much more consensual and collaborative. Even the Welsh Conservatives have ruled out the extension of the Right to Buy.

It’s a similar story ahead of the Scottish Parliament elections, though potentially one that is even better news for housing. The need for more affordable homes seems to be accepted across the political spectrum and both the SNP and Labour are proposing investment beyond the wildest dreams of campaigners south of the Tweed.

So does housing need a more consensual politics – or a different electoral system – to thrive? It’s certainly possible to draw that conclusion. The Westminster voting system means a party can win a majority with around 35% of the vote. The Conservatives in England successfully used housing as part of a naked appeal to aspirational voters and existing homeowners. The politics and the voting system are different in Scotland and Wales.

However, the election that will see housing enjoy its highest political profile this year is in England. Much of the race to become London mayor will turn on whether voters believe Zac Goldsmith or Sadiq Khan has the best plans to deliver desperately needed affordable homes. The same will be true to a lesser extent in other English local elections.

The difference is that for all the devolution of housing investment to London and the City Deals done in the North, key decisions are still made in Westminster. Even the most radical plans could be fatally undermined by forced council house sales, starter homes and rest of the Housing and Planning Bill.

Wales and Scotland, by contrast, can both pass their own housing legislation and ignore the triumphs of affordable rent, Right to Buy and Pay to Stay in England. Westminster control of housing benefit is still a big obstacle (though much less in Scotland than Wales) but devolved national governments are far freer to act on housing than devolved local government in England. Which is good news for campaigners for Homes for Wales.

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