Lib Dems need to get real

This opinion article was published in Inside Housing today.

Steve Hilditch

The Liberal Democrats’ new housing plans contradict everything the party is doing in government.

The housing policies being implemented by the coalition government bear almost no relation to manifestos offered by the Liberal Democrat or Conservative parties at the 2010 general election.

The nearest thing to a real agenda for the coalition was written by a think tank, Localis, which set out a long list of policies including reduced security of tenure for social tenants, the move towards market rents, and deregulation, all of which have been followed.

In terms of backtracking on manifesto promises, housing is another area where deputy prime minister Nick Clegg might consider an apology. At the Lib Dems’ autumn conference in Brighton, the party started again, debating a detailed new housing policy. It highlights growing unaffordability in all tenures, the instability of private renting, and the health and educational impacts of bad housing. It also features the economic benefits of building homes.

Specific commitments include building 300,000 homes a year, tackling land supply and land banking, providing greater ‘protection’ for private tenants, a stronger social housing regulator, including reinstating inspections, and localising the right to buy. Further work is to be done on the thorny issue of housing benefit.

It is extraordinary to read a document from a coalition partner that contradicts almost everything that the self-same party is pursuing in government. Lib Dem spokespeople defend the 60 per cent cut in housing investment while the party makes clear that housing investment is an excellent way to boost the economy. They defend the ending of support for new social rented homes while the party is advocating more. The party argues for more consumer regulation while it is also ending it. They support a change in the borrowing rules, thereby ‘potentially releasing some £50 billion investment in affordable housing’, and using quantitative easing to buy housing bonds, without explaining why they have not pursued these options in government.

What is perhaps most extraordinary is that, by replacing the words ‘Lib Dem’ with the word ‘Labour’, the document would be applauded to the heavens at Labour’s conference in Manchester next week. Oppositions are notoriously reluctant at this stage of a parliament to come forward with spending commitments and Labour has been cautious to say the least. Ed Balls proposes another bankers bonus tax to fund new social housing while Hilary Benn and Jack Dromey have developed detailed new policies for the private rented sector – very welcome but with no new spending.

If Labour adopted the new Lib Dem policy statement I would be content. One thing is certain – doing a deal with Labour is the only way Mr Clegg’s party will actually see its policies pursued in government.

Steve Hilditch co-edits Red Brick blog

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