Alex Marsh, a Liberal Democrat, blogs a lot of sense about housing. But what is most noteworthy about his latest piece, a report on the various housing debates and fringe meetings at LibDem Conference last weekend, is the similarity between the Labour and LibDem parties when it comes to housing policy. Conference-going party members seem to have the same natural instincts.
We’ve commented before on Red Brick that LibDem official Party policy on housing is very strong, and at one point I went so far as to say that I would be happy if Labour adopted it. Some key points from the weekend: the Conference passed a motion which is critical of planning policy in similar terms to those used by Labour; there were robust criticisms of the right to buy and the failure of the policy of replacement; there was solid support for raising the cap on local authority borrowing; there was a widespread desire to switch back to bricks and mortar subsidies and away from reliance on housing benefit; there was backing for mechanisms to tackle landbanking and bring more land forward for development. Alex’s report even confirms similar areas of argument and debate – for example the importance of a brownfield first policy; whether an era of higher housebuilding rates will actually moderate house prices given trends the current housing market; whether there should be German-style private rent controls. From his detailed description of the discussions, I couldn’t spot any major differences between what they discussed and what I hear discussed in the Labour Party every week.
If, depending on the outcome of the General Election (and given the state of the LibDems that may be a big if), Labour was faced with the prospect of governing by forming a coalition or some other kind of pact with the LibDems, then housing should not be the issue that stands in the way. It would take less than an afternoon to come up with an excellent common policy platform that the vast majority of Labour and LibDem members could agree on.
There are two big barriers to this being possible: the historic enmity between the parties (in my own borough, Brent, Labour has had to deal with Sarah Teather) and the disgraceful record on housing of the LibDems in power. Weak LibDem Ministers in the CLG department (Andrew Stunell, Don Foster) have failed to constrain their highly ideological Tory Secretary of State (Eric Pickles) and the initial driver of many of the policies, that most political of men, Grant Shapps. Junior LibDem Ministers have provided full cover. At the top, only Vince Cable has raised doubts about the policy, especially the lack of investment and the risk of house price inflation from help to buy.
Policies supported in Government have been in direct contradiction to the LibDem Party’s stated policy: for example, ending the national social rented programme, ending security of tenure in social housing, supporting huge rent hikes with the ‘affordable rent’ policy, supporting the bedroom tax, failing to regulate private renting, the list goes on.
The LibDems have little credibility left in terms of delivering in Government what they support outside Parliament. If coalition or joint working is to happen, at the very least they will need to admit the error of their ways. Perhaps we should dust off the famous Nick Clegg ‘I’m sorry’ video?