Cover Story: Housing gets political

Hey, Dave, don’t think much of yours

This year’s conference season has revealed cracks beginning to emerge in the old political consensus, and with housing looking set to be an election battleground, it offers the sector a chance to tell the politicians – “social housing” is not a dirty word

By Mark Cantrell

From Housing magazine, October 2013

THIS is not a party political broadcast on behalf of the Labour Party, but after the Conservative Party’s more-of-the-same performance in Manchester, we’re walking a fine line here.

It just goes to show; sometimes it pays to break ranks if you want to get noticed. So in the interests of journalistic scepticism, not to mention objectivity, it’s worth bearing in mind the whole notion of politicians and promises. Read their lips, by all means, but keep a close eye on their fingers too.

Over the last couple of decades, we’ve grown used to the major political parties triangulating to capture a rightwards drifting centre ground, built around concepts of the market, and a consumerist ‘me first’ individualism. While admittedly a simplification, it’s led to contests over personality and style rather more than substance. For the cynical observer, this post-Thatcher consensus has led the parties to drift into a curious convergence.

But now, as David Cameron has bemoaned it, the Labour Party has suddenly veered left on a course towards “1970s socialism”. As if he should complain. The Prime Minister ought to be grateful for any alleged red shift in his opposite number’s political journey; it creates a gap where the two old contenders can begin to define themselves anew.

In Brighton, Ed Miliband finally threw a few wildcards onto the table; he pledged to abolish the widely hated bedroom tax, and whether the Tories want to fight the next election on this turf or not, the Labour leader made housing a key political battleground.

“There are nine million people in this country renting a home, many of whom would want to buy. We don’t just have a cost of living crisis, we have a housing crisis too,” said Miliband. “In 2010, when we left office, there was a problem. There were one million too few homes in Britain. If we carry on as we are, by 2020 there will be two million too few homes in Britain. That is the equivalent of two cities the size of Birmingham.

“We’ve got to do something about it and the next Labour government will. So, we’ll say to private developers, you can’t just sit on land and refuse to build. We will give them a very clear message – either use the land or lose the land. That is what the next Labour Government will do.

“We’ll say to local authorities that they have a right to grow, and neighbouring authorities can’t just stop them. We’ll identify new towns and garden cities, and we’ll have a clear aim that by the end of the Parliament Britain will be building 200,000 homes a year; more than at any time in a generation. That’s how we make Britain better than this.”

A commitment to build more homes has, as you’d expect, gone down well with the sector, given it has spent so long arguing the case for more homes. The number – 200,000 – may be some 40-50,000 shy of the annual figure that is generally accepted as a necessity to catch up with a shortfall in demand, but it’s proved a welcome figure nonetheless.

“Ed Miliband’s commitment to boost the number of homes is greatly welcome,” said David Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation (NHF). “An ambitious, comprehensive house building strategy is what we have been calling for, and something that this country has desperately needed for decades to drag us out of our current housing crisis.

“Building more homes will stop house prices and rents spiralling out of control. Families will be able to live in homes that are more affordable, giving them a better standard of living. Young adults will be able to live independently without getting themselves into incredible amounts of debt. And it will ease the fears of older people wondering how they’ll be able to pay for a home that suits their needs when they retire.

“Whichever government is in power needs to be bold, and develop new towns and join up land acquisition, finance, infrastructure and housing delivery to transform the housing market into one that truly serves Britain’s people and communities.”

But John Cridland, director general of the ‘voice of business’ the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) offered a stern remonstration: “We have fallen woefully behind on house building and the commitment to build 200,000 homes a year is a great ambition. To achieve this we need house builders on board, not to be criticised for holding on to land when it’s not viable to build on it.”

On scrapping the bedroom tax – “no ifs, no buts” as Miliband put it on the eve of the Labour Conference – Orr urged the current Government to fulfil the Labour leader’s pledge and kill the tax he “despises”.

“We have spent over two years lobbying against this policy which penalises the poor and will not address the chronic housing shortage,” he said. “We now need the Government to give the same commitment to repeal this unfair and unworkable tax and commit to addressing rising housing costs through building more affordable homes.”

By the time the Conservatives gathered in Manchester, the Labour Party had clearly stolen their thunder, at least on matters housing. Here was a party establishment caught on the back foot, and left little room to regain the initiative – simply because most of its pieces are already in play.

Yes, David Cameron made political capital out of his early release of the second phase of Help to Buy – duly backed by his Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne – but the move had the inescapable feel of a man looking to snatch some headlines off the ‘other guy’.

In a similar vein, the mid-conference announcement of a ‘tenants’ charter’ – longer, fixed-term and “family friendly” tenancies – may already have been in the policy sausage machine, but the timing of its arrival spoke volumes of a Government wrong-footed and under pressure by calls for regulation and reform of the private rented sector. Here, then, is regulation and reform without the ‘strangling red tape’ but even with the backing of a cabinet heavyweight like Eric Pickles, it came across as an exercise in having something to show the troops.

Back to Cameron, and he also pledged to axe Housing Benefit for young people under 25 (a move mooted once before); a populist measure among the party faithful but it was quickly dubbed “dangerous” by the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH).

“How do you build the economy without a young, mobile workforce? It would mean that young people would be unwilling to take risks such as moving for work because there would be no safety net for them,” said Grainia Long, the organisation’s chief executive.

“It also fails to take into account the reality of many people’s lives – many under 25s will have paid tax and National Insurance for several years before needing to claim benefits.”

As it is, perhaps the real measure of Conservative Party thinking on matters housing was delivered before the party conference season got underway. At the NHF’s conference in Birmingham, then housing minister Mark Prisk delivered his detailed summation of what the Government is doing to help people realise the homeownership dream, help the sector deliver more allegedly affordable homes, boost the private rented sector, and generally deliver the 170,000 homes under its extended Affordable Homes Programme.

Much of this was but a reiteration of his CIH Manchester speech from June. One highlight of both occasions was the message he had in relation to existing stock: effectively he told the sector it must work harder and faster to make social homes more expensive – by upgrading more of them to the Affordable Rents programme on relets. However much new housing the current Coalition – or a future Conservative – Government might deliver, it seems clear that as far as its thinking goes, social housing is history, rather like Prisk’s ministerial tenure, one might jibe.

All told, the Conservatives offered a familiar package at this year’s conference; such might also be said of the LibDems, despite the grassroots passing of a motion to take a good hard look at the bedroom tax. Here is a party that remains very much hopeful that it will be playing the role of ‘kingmaker’ – or rather PM-maker – come the 2015 election much as it did in 2010.

Cameron and Osborne, as they made clear in their speechmaking, want to be able to “finish the job” – to secure government via an outright verdict at the ballot box, rather than having to ‘cut a deal’ with Nick Clegg and his ilk. Labour, for its part, appears to be setting out on its own path to 2015, but for all that, there remains a discernible overlap in their conference themes.

The Conservatives pushed economic recovery; Labour the cost of living crisis which is not unrelated. In their respective ways, both parties gave their backing to “hard working families”. Cameron had his “land of opportunity”; Miliband had his “Britain can do better than this”. Whatever, the next election is a good 20 months away and with those cracks beginning to appear in the old consensus it opens up the possibility for the sector to grab some leverage as both contenders look to win friends and votes.

“Profit” is not a dirty word, Cameron told the party faithful in Manchester. What he didn’t say, but perhaps his Government’s policies say in no uncertain terms, is that “social housing” is tantamount to a foul-mouthed utterance that has no place in polite society. Still, language has a way of shifting.

So, hold off the soapy mouthwash; it is surely time now for the housing sector to start talking dirty to the politicians. Downright filthy even, until they go red in the face.

Main photo: Composite image created from original image sources: David Cameron courtesy of Steve Bowbrick; Ed Miliband courtesy of Ed Miliband at Flickr

This article formed the cover story for the October 2013 print edition of Housing magazine. It was subsequently republished on the Housing Excellence website, 25 March 2014

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