They say politics is a rough old trade, but any hope that there might be a frank debate on housing during the Party Conference season were dashed immediately at the LibDem conference in Birmingham. The line was just to deny that their policies have any downside at all.
LibDem President Simon Hughes MP knows that attack is often the best form of defence.
He set the tone at the start of the week by giving the impression that the worst thing happening in housing at the moment is that Frank Dobson MP is a council tenant, or as Inside Housing quoted Hughes as saying, he lives in ‘a bloody Camden Council flat’.
Then we had Andrew Stunell MP’s subterfuge: trying to pretend that ‘affordable rent’ homes are social housing, stretching credulity to the limit. He also made much of the Coalition’s efforts to bring empty homes back into use without mentioning Eric Pickles restrictions on the use of Empty Dwelling Management Orders to protect property owners’ ‘fundamental rights’.
Finally we had Pensions Minister Steve Webb MP. Surely a man with such expertise in
the field of tax and benefits would have something intelligent to say about the housing benefit reforms. None of it. His line was that while Labour accused him of adopting a policy akin to the slaughter of the first born, the truth was that cash spending on housing benefit at the end of the Parliament would be the same as at the start, around £22bn. So
all is well, he is just ‘reigning in the remorseless growth in spending’. No mention of rent inflation, or of policies, like affordable rent, that are driving up housing benefit costs, or of the increasing caseload of private tenants having to share the available cash, or of the policy of pushing homeless families into the more expensive private rented sector. And certainly no mention of Boris Johnson’s description of the policy as ‘Kosovo-style cleansing’.
Never can a LibDem audience have been so supine. It looked to me like they think that
the only hope of political survival is to keep their heads down and claim that they are having influence. In housing they have nothing to show for their efforts because they have gone along with the Tory agenda in its entirety – the end of social rent, moving towards market rents, reducing tenants’ rights, laissez-faire in the private rented sector.
It will be interesting to see how the Labour Conference pans out. We are told that there will be honesty about the record in office, which should start with an admission that far too few homes were built. But this has to lead to new policies that will produce many more homes – market homes and genuinely affordable homes. There will need to be a radically new approach to capital investment, so I will be paying as much attention to Ed Balls as I will to Caroline Flint.