Nick Clegg may be riding high in the televised party leaders’ debates, but in the second of Inside Housing’s leader series, we ask: can the Liberal Democrats win housing’s vote?
Inside Housing Why should social housing workers and their residents vote Liberal Democrat?
Nick Clegg For the same reason that a lot of people are turning to us this time: because we’ll make Britain fairer - starting with the biggest overhaul of the tax system for a generation. By closing the loopholes exploited by the very wealthy and a new mansion tax on homes worth more than £2 million, we’ll make sure you don’t pay income tax on the first £10,000 you earn. And 3.6 million low paid workers, part-time workers and pensioners - many of them living in social housing today - would be freed from paying any income tax at all.
We’re also the only party with detailed plans to tackle Britain’s social housing crisis. We’ve identified money - by making cuts elsewhere in government - that we can use to turn 100,000 homes currently sitting empty into social homes. And we’ll free up councils to borrow against their assets so they can build more social homes. In Newcastle, Liberal Democrat councillors are building the first new council houses in a generation. Imagine what we could do in government.
IH What will you do personally during the election campaign to push housing further up the political agenda and make it a key election issue?
NC I don’t think I need to make it a key election issue - I’ve been travelling up and down the country talking to people about what they want from politicians and housing comes up everywhere you go. What I want to do is show people how serious Liberal Democrats are about providing more and better homes.
There are only two major proposals for new and immediate investment in our manifesto and one is a £3.1 billion jobs and infrastructure package that will bring a quarter of a million empty homes back into use, 100,000 of them as social homes. We’ll also set up an eco-cashback scheme, providing families with £400 grants to make eco-friendly improvements to their homes, like replacing old windows with double glazing.
IH Inside Housing is campaigning for greater recognition of the importance of good quality housing in our House Proud campaign. Will you lend your support?
NC It’s a really important campaign, one I’m delighted to see attracting so much support and our shadow housing minister Sarah Teather signed up some time ago. Housing is fundamental to the kind of society we live in - whether it’s fair or not.
Labour is trying to run away from its record on this, but it can’t hide from the facts - there are now 800,000 more people waiting for a home than there were when Labour came to power in 1997.
And the Conservatives seem determined to downgrade building regulations so people in poverty have to live in sub-standard, overcrowded housing. Both parties’ approaches, in my view, amount to a callous betrayal of some of the most vulnerable people in our country.
IH What assurances can you give the housing sector about the financial settlement it will receive if the Liberal Democrats win the election?
NC As I’ve said, under the Liberal Democrats, housing will be one of the only areas of immediate, major new investment, along with green energy and schools. But [Liberal Democrat treasury spokesperson] Vince Cable and I haven’t joined in this game that the other parties are playing about ‘ring-fencing’ this and protecting that. It’s fundamentally dishonest.
There is no way we can get rid of Britain’s enormous deficit without looking across all government departments for savings. Why on earth would you rule out looking at any department that is spending billions and billions of taxpayers’ pounds to see if there’s money you can save? I judge public expenditure by what it delivers, not how much it costs.
IH Are Labour’s plans to overhaul council housing finance any good and how would the Liberal Democrats tackle reform differently?
NC Frankly, the whole system needs to be reviewed, which is what the Liberal Democrats have pledged to do. Change should happen and it needs to make it easier for councils to build and improve homes for local people.
But in my view, the review really doesn’t go far enough. Just looking at the housing revenue account in isolation is missing the point. I want to go back to first principles - councils should be raising and spending their own money, not be dependent on central government for three-quarters of their resources. Local government, local taxes, local rents, local fees and charges - they should be truly local. So I want a complete review, not just of the HRA but of the whole way councils are funded, to set them free. Put simply, I want to rewrite the book on the relationship between central and local government.
IH Would a Liberal Democrat government maintain its pledge to ensure no further Supporting People cuts?
NC Sarah [Teather] and I believe that the Supporting People programme is incredibly important in helping people live independently and I hope that when councils are setting their budgets that’s something they take into account.
I know that lots of people who move into sheltered housing do expect a 24-hour warden and if councils or housing associations are going to make changes to that, they need to do it in close consultation with residents in each sheltered housing scheme. What’s right in one place might not be right in another.
I rather like the idea Help the Aged has come up with about putting changes to warden services to a vote of the affected residents. That’s the kind of good practice I hope more housing associations and councils will use.
IH Would a Liberal Democrat government maintain Labour’s warm homes programme?
NC We need to go much further. Did you know that, right now, only one in 100 homes is fully insulated? So, on top of our eco-cashback scheme, which we’ll run in our first year, Liberal Democrats have radical plans for a new, privately financed but government-backed, scheme to meet the upfront costs of home energy improvements.
Eligible homes would be retrofitted with home improvements such as loft, wall and floor insulation, as well as energy efficient lighting, heating, windows, and doors. We can cut carbon emissions while saving people money on their bills. The costs of energy efficiency measures could be up to £10,000 and would be repaid over a period of up to 25 years.
IH Would a Liberal Democrat government try to reduce the national housing benefit bill?
NC By creating skilled jobs and apprenticeships through our jobs package, we can get more people onto higher incomes and off housing benefit altogether. We can also reduce the bill by getting more private landlords to accept tenants on housing benefit, which should push rents down.
IH What support would a Liberal Democrat government offer housing staff tackling anti-social behaviour?
NC Liberal Democrats would put victims at the centre of resolving problems in their area, by setting up neighbourhood justice panels to deal with low-level crime. We’ve got to get the people who make life a misery for others in their area to realise what they’re doing is wrong.
IH If the election results in a hung parliament, would you rather find your party forming a coalition government with Labour or the Conservatives, based on their housing policies?
NC It’s amazing how many different ways people find to ask me this question. I’ve set out my priorities - Liberal Democrat priorities - for this election: a new, sustainable economy, kick-started by investing in infrastructure and homes, fair taxes, the best start for all children in our schools by cutting class sizes and providing more one-to-one tuition and honest, decent politics, getting rid of the influence of big money and giving people the right to sack corrupt MPs. Whatever the British people decide at this election, those are the policies my party will be fighting for.
IH As part of our House Proud campaign Inside Housing’s readers voted for this pledge to be included in parties’ election manifestos: ‘We will develop the funding models required to ensure that mass retrofitting of the existing housing stock can be commenced within three years.’ Will you include it in the Liberal Democrat manifesto?
NC We can go even further - the warmer houses finance scheme I mentioned earlier, and our eco-cashback scheme too.