Posted by: Jules Birch29/10/2009
The battle lines on housing between Labour and the Conservatives are getting sharper by the day and there is also an emerging second front between the two main parties and the Liberal Democrats.
There may not be an issue quite as iconic as the right to buy was in 1979 but political divisions certainly seem stronger than in the eighties, nineties and noughties. The key issue is new homes and the way things are shaping up it is set to pitch that most Tory of industries, housebuilding, into the Labour camp.
That is remarkable for anyone who remembers the mutual admiration society between Margaret Thatcher and the housebuilding and construction tycoons Sir Lawrie Barratt and Frank Taylor in the 1980s. Thatcher famously bought a Barratt house to retire to while Taylor was a key Tory donor.
Flash forward 25 years and the Labour communities secretary was able to seize gleefully on comments by the chief executive of the firm that Taylor founded in this week’s communities and local government questions. ‘It was not me but the chief executive of Taylor Wimpey who described his party’s policies as “scary as hell” because of the uncertainty being created,’ John Denham told shadow planning minister Bob Neill.
The issue was of course the Conservatives’ pledge to abolish regional spatial strategies. For the Tories it’s all about giving power over planning decisions back to local communities; for their opponents (and more than a few housebuilders) the result will be disastrous for new homes.
A succession of Conservatives questioned Denham and housing minister John Healey on the issue. While they came from all around the country, the region seeing the most controversy is the South West, where a legal challenge to the strategy means it will not be finalised until next (election) year.
With Labour holding only a handful of seats in the region, the main battle in the South West is between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems, who have to steer a delicate line between being pro-housing and being out-nimbied. Denham’s Lib Dem shadow, Julia Goldsworthy, said the regional spatial strategy process had undermined confidence in the political system and made many people angry.
Denham’s answer summed up the Labour case against the Tories. ‘We need to ensure that we have sufficient land for housing, growth, economic development and jobs for the future,’ he said. ‘That cannot be a purely local decision; it must have regional and national elements. I hope that she is not joining with the incredibly damaging position of Conservative front benchers in saying, “Jobs don’t matter. Housing doesn’t matter. Growth doesn’t matter.” All they want is local populism. There are difficult choices to be made, and we need political parties in this country that, unlike the party opposite, will face up to those difficult choices.’
While Goldsworthy and other Lib Dems pressed home the attack over the fact that the strategy for the South West is determining planning policy despite being only a draft, a succession of Conservatives attacked the government over the strategies which shadow communities minister Stewart Jackson alleged were ‘deleting the green belt across the country’.
But there was time too for a Labour-Lib Dem bust-up centred on Liverpool. Labour MP Peter Kilfoyle attacked the Lib Dem city council for not applying to join the council house building programme but appointing an assistant executive director of housing on £102,000. Healey told him: ‘I was disappointed that it chose not to see the chance to build new council homes for people in the city as a priority, and that, like other flagship Liberal councils in Hull and Newcastle, it did not bid.’
All in all it’s shaping up to be the biggest election for housing in England since 1979 and the right to buy - which the SNP is about to abolish in Scotland.
From Inside edge
Housing commentator Jules Birch puts the latest news in context