Good political speeches are seductive, and yesterday Tim Farron made a good speech. Coherent, passionate, with quite a lot of policy. It had quite a long section on housing.
He started by saying his interest was sparked by seeing ‘Cathy Come Home’ as a repeat 18 years after it came out (I saw it age 16 on original broadcast, and it certainly had a life-long effect on me). He said that he sees ‘Cathys’ in his surgery very week – ‘People in housing need, desperate for a home, desperate to be settled, desperate for dignity’.
He made the basic case for good homes in an effective way: ‘Access to affordable housing affects us all because it is the entry ticket to society, to security and stability, to work, health and community. Because without secure, affordable and stable housing how can you be sure that you can send your kids to the same school one term after the next? How can you be confident you can keep your children safe and warm? How can you apply for and hold down a job to feed and clothe them? And how can you have the peace of mind to concentrate on anything else? The worry and the burden of not knowing if you can pay the mortgage, pay the rent, stay in the same place for more than six months at a time, is devastating to millions and millions of British people.’
His policies included building 300,000 homes a year, letting councils build again, 10 new garden cities, and a housing investment bank. He promised to lead the opposition to the forced sell-off of housing association properties.
So far so good. But there was one sentence that he probably should not have uttered. He said: ‘We have had enough empty rhetoric on housing. We need action now.’
Empty rhetoric. I have commented before on Red Brick that if you only look at paper policies, the LibDems housing policy has been the best. As a party they have had a good progressive comprehensive policy for many years. I wish it had been Labour Party policy, and have had the wishful thought that the two parties should work together on housing. But the past policy and Farron’s speech are all empty rhetoric. Because they have been in Government for five years and they had the chance to follow their principles and to pursue their policies.
No LibDem that I have heard has attempted to explain or rationalise what contribution they made to housing policy under the Coalition. What happened was virtually the opposite of their policy. They supported every decision to undermine and move towards ending social rented housing. The backed demand subsidies for home ownership when the system was crying out for aggressive supply-side action. They failed to take action on private renting. They supported the caps and benefit policies that make it impossible for people on low incomes to live in areas of the country with high rents. They pretended that the ‘affordable rent’ product was affordable when everyone knew it wasn’t. And on and on.
A succession of weak LibDem junior housing ministers looked feeble and ineffectual, and they were. At DWP, LibDem Steve Webb looked and sounded competent but proved to be just a nicer version of his boss, Iain Duncan Smith.
A new leader makes a good speech, but the fundamental truth hasn’t changed. Farron should be forced to explain to Cathy why his party supported the extreme act of watering down of the homelessness safety net – because everything he said about homelessness is true. His phrase ‘empty rhetoric’ sums it up.
In housing and probably many other areas as well, the LibDems cannot now be allowed to move from the moral cess-pit to the moral high ground without serious challenge.