New Lib Dem Housing Policy

Last week, I proposed a motion putting forward a new housing policy for the Liberal Democrats.  Reassuringly, the motion was carried overwhelmingly!

This is what I said:

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Or, if you prefer to have it in writing, this:

Fellow Liberal Democrats.

Late last night I was reading an excellent report on the housing crisis by Housing Voice and came across the following quote from the 1945 Liberal manifesto:

There is a house famine in the land. Liberals will not be satisfied until there is a separate dwelling for each family at reasonable rent. This can be achieved only by a completely new approach, applying to housing the same drive as was used to produce aircraft and munitions of war. The responsibility should be placed on a Minister of Housing and no vested interests can be allowed to stand in the way. Local authorities must be enabled to borrow at a low rate of interest, and, in no part of the country, be allowed to ignore their obligations.

For a few minutes I thought I should maybe be asking for an emergency delete all and replace amendment – but I realise that finding a policy statement from 1945 doesn’t quite fit the criteria.

But much of the language does still resonate:

While we may not have a house famine in the land, if we continue to fail to match the number of homes we build to the number of households we form every year, we are certainly heading that way.

We are still far from the situation that there is a separate, decent dwelling for every family at a reasonable rent or which people can reasonably buy

We still believe that local authorities should have a critical role and that they should be able to borrow at a low rate of interest.

We definitely need a new approach. We need real drive to fix the problem.

And definitely, very definitely, no vested interests must be allowed to stand in the way.

Because we still do face a housing crisis.

It’s different from the 1940s. But it’s very real, none the less.

For over 40 years – under Governments of all persuasions – we have failed to build enough homes.

Every year we form over 200,000 new households – through ageing, family breakdown and population growth.

And yet, on average, over the last two decades we’ve only built 160,000 homes a year.

And if you don’t build enough homes – market forces kick in. House prices have shot up to be out of reach of ever more people.

Across the UK, the average age of a first time buyer is 35, up from 28 just a decade ago and 24 in the 1960s.

And rents are not immune. These have also been increasing dramatically and putting family budgets under more and more pressure.

Whichever way you cut the cake, we are failing to build enough houses – and it is hitting many people across the UK really hard.

Because this isn’t just about personal finances

Failure to enable everyone to have a decent home has a direct consequence in other areas that are at the heart of Liberal Democrat values and beliefs.

Too many houses are damp – and if a house is damp, the individual or family living there is much more likely to suffer ill-health.

Too many houses are overcrowded – and if a family is living in stressed and cramped conditions – it has a serious impact on a child’s ability to learn.

And the financial instability caused by speculation on land and homes in the run-up to 2008 – combined with the debt and high risk financial instruments used to finance it – was one of the biggest, if not the biggest cause of our current economic crisis.

One area of particular focus in our paper is the private rented sector.

It’s the fastest growing sector.

It has the highest proportion of unfit housing.

While most landlords are good, there are still too many rogues.

And it’s no longer accurate to say that private tenants are students and young professionals.  The fastest growing group in private rented housing is families.

Indeed, nearly a third of households in the private rented sector are families. And yet, the overwhelming majority of people in private rented housing are on short-term – mostly 6-month – tenancies. Completely unsuitable – and completely unable to give families the stability they need.

What sense does a 6 month tenancy make for a family with children in school?

And we’re not just concerned about private tenants.

With housing associations in particular, there has been a trend towards merger and centralisation.

Distant call centres. Unresponsive housing managers. Huge hikes in management fees. While the best social landlords are brilliant, a few aren’t – and this paper puts forward stronger mechanisms to tackle this.

So what are we going to do about it?

Our plan has three main elements:

  • Building more homes
  • Giving tenants more power and security
  • More local control

So first, building more homes.

Building more homes is critical to tackling the housing crisis – and a great way of kick-starting the economy.

It played a critical role in taking Britain out of recession in the 1930s.

It creates jobs in Britain. Every pound spent creates £2.84 of economic activity. Every extra house built per year creates 3-4 extra jobs.

And we have a major backlog to catch-up on so we have set ourselves an ambitious target of increasing the rate of construction until we reach 300,000 homes a year.

Our paper takes a freedom first approach. Finding ways to get more money into housing – from Quantitative Easing, from pension funds, from allowing Housing Associations to borrow against mortgages and from the sensible step of moving our government accounting standards in line with the rest of Europe and giving local authorities greater freedom to borrow.

In the spirit of our 1940s forbears, we take on vested interests – the developers and speculators who are landbanking – with an extension of Community Land Auctions, ‘use it or lose it’ planning permissions and a competition review of the major builders.

And I welcome the first amendment that builds on the idea of taxing unused land with planning permission from the policy paper, expands it and puts it in the motion.

Indeed, the spirit of 1945 seems to be strong in all the proposers of the amendments. I also like the way that the proposers of the third amendment are taking on the vested interests that seek to water down S106 agreements.

Our paper also puts forward ways to strengthen environmental standards. This was one of the hardest areas of the paper because Andrew Stunnell has done such a cracking job fighting for environmental standards that there wasn’t much left that we could find to do! We owe him a great deal across all areas of housing policy.

Secondly giving tenants more say

We must find a way of giving tenants more security with longer tenancies. And if we do it right, this will be good for landlords too – with safer income and fewer voids.

In our paper, we put forward the idea of a mini-lease. Shelter has just put forward a very similar idea in their excellent recent paper on private renting called ‘Stable Rent Contract’ – which is probably a better name! Both allow for a longer tenancy while giving both landlords and tenants more protection.

We put forward a system of licensing. And later in the debate you have the choice of a compulsory national system of licensing – or allowing local authorities to target licensing to areas of greatest need.  I’m a localist and support option A. But our group was not aligned on this and there are some excellent speakers to clarify the issue later in the debate.

Our primary focus for housing associations is the initiative to give groups of tenants the ability to vote to change provider. Not a top-down solution, but giving tenants more power.

While this is a real opportunity for the best housing associations – who will get the opportunity to expand – poorer housing associations will be forced to raise their game – or see their tenants leave.

Finally localism

It was perhaps inevitable that a housing paper with one co-chair from Liverpool and one co-chair from Winchester would realise quite quickly that one size fits all housing policies weren’t going to work.

Thriving neighbourhoods come from local leadership – not from central government policy.

We build on the excellent localism act by finding ways to give even more local control.

For those areas who have problems with second homes – we give local authorities greater powers to control them.

For those areas blighted by empty homes – we build – once again – on Andrew Stunnell’s fantastic work in this area – to give councils – but also housing associations and individuals more power and finance to tackle the problem.

And in the spirit of localism, we’re pleased to support Amendment 2. It’s not for Whitehall, or even, a London think tank that should be deciding local housing plans. And we want to see mixed local communities – not forced ghettoization.

Before I finish I’d like to say thank you to my fellow members of the policy working group – it was a delight and an honour to work with people who care so much and know so much about this issue – and a particular thank you to Bess Mayhew from the Policy Unit for her outstanding support for the group’s work.

Fellow Liberal Democrats

If you back this motion today, you are doing more than signing up to build more homes, give tenants more say  or give communities more power to shape themselves. You are also making a commitment to all the other things that come with a commitment to tackling the housing crisis – jobs, reduced carbon emissions – and for those able to escape bad housing – better health – and a better place for children to learn.

You’ll be taking on vested interests – which is always good.

And you will be strengthening the hand of our Government Ministers – which is even better.

And right across the country, you’ll be making sure that more people have the one thing that is the bedrock on which we all seek to build our lives. A decent home.

And on that basis I ask you to support the motion.

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