We should rejoice that today marks the point at which the Coalition is half over. From now on there will be fewer days of suffering ahead of us than there are behind us. As Cameron and Clegg do another relaunch, it is salutary for a housing blog to look back at the Coalition Agreement and see how what they have done compares to what they promised.
This is easier said than done, because the Agreement had little to say about housing and nothing to say about many of the more controversial policies they have pursued in power. And that is the root of my central criticism of the LibDems – if the Agreement is what they signed up to, with no obligation to support other policies not contained therein, why did they subsequently embrace enthusiastically so many Tory policies that were not in the Agreement and diametrically the opposite of what was in their own Manifesto? Were they weak or stupid? It must be one of those. More than in most areas, housing policy has been developed according to a private agenda within the Conservative Party and the LibDems have chosen to go along with it when they could have taken a much more oppositional stance without breaching the Coalition Agreement.
Some of the policies included in the Coalition Agreement have been pursued, such as: scrapping regional spatial strategies; reform of the housing revenue account; bringing empty homes into use; increasing the right to buy. And there are others where progress is more debatable: continuous improvement of energy efficiency; creating new community trusts to provide homes for local people; ‘maintain the green belt’ (remind Planning Minister Nick Boles about that one).
What is astonishing is the lack of mention of a long list of policies the Coalition has since pursued: the ending of new homes for social rent; the creation of the ‘affordable rent’ tenure at up to 80% of market rents; the 60% cut in public housing investment; flexible tenure; the bedroom tax; reducing the homelessness safety net; cancelling Labour’s plans to regulate the private rented sector – to name but a few. It is also worth mentioning that the Agreement does not even mention the phrases ‘housing benefit’ and ‘local housing allowance’ and the word ‘cap’. Nowhere is there any reference to the overall benefit cap.
There is no doubt that the LibDems would have been well within their Coalition rights to oppose or to refuse to support these policies but were too feeble to do so. Indeed, LibDem Minister after Minister – in CLG and DWP – stood up to defend them and to support policies that are wholly contradictory to historic LibDem policies or even the new and excellent LIbDem housing policy adopted at their last conference.
The reason for being so disappointed with the LibDems is that it was well known before the Election that a private housing agenda was being developed by the Tories with the help of leading figures in the housing world: in particular, the infamous Localis pamphlet set out clearly the direction the Tories would take towards market rents and the denial of rights to social tenants. The LibDems should have known what was coming and had a clearer strategy for resisting it.
There is a general belief that the Coalition will be brought to an end before the General Election so that the Conservative and LibDem parties can develop distinctive policies during the campaign. No doubt at that point the LIbDems will revert to their previous and current policies, which on paper are excellent and attractive. But the real measure will be ‘what did you do in Government?’. The Coalition has been disastrous for housing policy and the LibDems have been fully complicit. Whatever the paper policies, they should not be trusted again.