Rhetoric and reality at the Conservative party conference

The last few dodgy canapés binned, the stalls packed away and the nation’s tired looking journalists and politicos heading back home; yesterday was the final day of the Conservative party conference 2012. Despite a worrying return to the idea of cutting off housing benefit for young people, I think there has been some good news for housing.

I was struck by how much Conservatives ‘got’ housing. Members and activists could see the potential for housing as a key way of framing core Conservative values of aspiration and opportunity. This must have struck a chord with party strategists too – David Cameron spoke passionately in his speech about being on the side of hard working young people frustrated by their inability to buy a home, and recognised that building more homes is pretty much the only way forward.

Speaking at the Shelter and Fujitsu fringe event, former policy chief to Margaret Thatcher, Ferdinand Mount, spoke of the centrality of a good home to the notion that ‘we’re all in this together’. Councillors certainly got the importance of housing at a local level, and many were desperate to get more homes built in their areas. Think tanks and lobbyists banged the drum for housing and opened up debates on more innovative ways of getting it built.

But yet… I’m not quite jumping for joy. Almost every local member I spoke to talked of real problems with ‘nimbyism’ in their area. Their local residents do want their kids to have a home of their own, but they don’t want more building. Hmmm. I heard one tale of a proposed development of just five homes in a wealthy rural area. The local primary school teacher was after one of these affordable homes. But local residents kicked up a storm and opposed the planning applications. How depressing.

There was also concern about the big welfare changes coming down the track, including the implementation of universal credit and the possibility of further cutbacks to the benefits bill. One can’t help notice the contradiction between Cameron’s pledge to help young strivers, and the proposal to cut off all housing benefit for under 25s, many of whom are hard working people who need the independence and security of their own home to get ahead in life. As we’ve outlined elsewhere, this is not a workable or fair policy.

The rhetoric is there, and that’s good, but the policies don’t yet match up. This time last year Cameron majored on housing in his speech and promised a ‘Tory housing revolution’. Low building levels, planning reforms and a handful of sales through right to buy and first-time buyer schemes have hardly constituted a revolution. The Party must be bolder with its solutions. As the Prime Minister said himself – it’s do or decline.