Sunday, 30 April 2017

Owning housing

‘We want to own housing at the next general election,’ says party president Tim Farron. 

No, he isn’t going to go out and buy property for the Liberal Democrats. The president is in fact slipping into internet gaming slang - he wants to win on the issue, and do so in a way that sets the party above the Tories and Labour. 

At the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow, it is obvious housing is beginning to take centre stage in the party’s agenda.

Nick Clegg’s big economics motion, which many speculate draws the early battle-lines of a 2015 fightback, put building council houses right at the centre. 

And although they went for a watered down proposal, allowing councils to pool borrowing caps rather than lift them, there were many whispers that this was pragmatic. 

They believe it is something they can argue for successfully in government now, while pushing forward lifting the caps in their manifesto. 

Clegg’s words certainly supported this view. ‘This motion is… about what we can do now, not in 10, 15 years, what we can do now,’ he said. He did not argue against lifting the cap.

An often repeated refrain was that a Tory government started the sell off of council housing and Labour, ‘to their eternal shame’ in one delegate’s words, accelerated it. 

Expect to hear this more frequently from Liberal Democrats as they march towards 2015. 

But there are divisions. The first, and most obvious, is the bedroom tax. The grassroots members despise the policy. In a debate over a motion which condemned it for ‘discriminating against the most vulnerable in society,’ a stream of members stood up to lay into the policy. The words ‘not in my name’ almost generated a standing ovation. 

In the end, no one from the upper echelons of the party had the nerve to speak in favor of ‘removing the spare room subsidy’, and two lonely hands were all that prevented a unanimous vote against it. 

At the moment, the party line seeks to juggle the Lib Dems into the best position by focusing on discretionary housing payments. They secured increased DHP, not the Tories, they say and Labour councils are ‘playing politics’ by not spending their allocation, they allege.

But for the party’s parliamentarians, it spells trouble. All the juggling in the world doesn’t change the fact that they supported and voted for it and members are angry enough to consider their campaigning role.

‘How can I knock on doors and defend it?’ one said.

‘All that’s keeping me here is the Glee Club,’ another added. 

The second division is among the leadership on help to buy. Vince Cable hates it enough to begin muttering about housing bubbles in the way he did pre-credit crunch but Clegg and Danny Alexander, chief secretary to the Treasury, are stoically ignoring his criticism. 

Ultimately, the party needs to find issues they can rally around and it seems more social homes may be the one. Mr Farron is deep in policy discussions and, judging by his meeting with members on Sunday night, building council houses is popular with the grass roots. 

Whatever policy he finally settles on, and how, or if, the Lib Dems resolve its differences on Tory housing policies it has supported, the members of the party see housing as ready to take centre stage at the next election. 

And that can only be good news for the sector. 

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