Housing takes centre stage

‘[This] country desperately needs a delivery of homes…’

Spoken by Vince Cable, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation, and Skills during his platform speech at this year’s Liberal Democrat Party Conference.

After a wet and windy three days in Glasgow it’s clear: housing the next generation is on everyone’s mind. The Liberal Democrats, both members and Ministers, genuinely do want to ‘own housing at the next general election’.  However, what this ownership will look like is still all to play for.

Senior politicians and activists are accepting the dire state of our dysfunctional market. And they are hungry for solutions.

Party President Tim Farron hosted a late night fringe event that asked activists how to build more affordable homes. Without even the lure of refreshments nearly 100 people came together to brainstorm. So strong was the desire to find tangible solutions security had to turn out the lights to close it down.

Party Leader, Nick Clegg used his economy motion to call for local authority borrowing caps to be pooled in order to ‘build more affordable homes now’.

Perhaps most striking was the palpable sense of fear at a potential housing bubble.  ONS figures released on Monday revealed that house prices in England have reached a record high. You would have been hard pushed to find anyone in the Glasgow SECC who thought this was a positive development.

Analysts have been quick to claim that rising prices are a ‘London problem’. However, representatives in Glasgow certainly didn’t consider this a niche problem facing the south east. As detailed by the Financial Times yesterday, the problem isn’t just that house prices are already too high – it’s what the future holds. Housing market indicators are sharply increasing across England.

Frequent concern was expressed about the impact of rising prices on the young families already priced out of homeownership. During his public conversation with the Independent’s Steve Richards Vince Cable proclaimed boldly that someone in Government ‘has to speak out!’ This comment raised the only spontaneous audience applause of the evening.

There was growing recognition of the political opportunity presented by ‘owning housing’. Conference attendees were frequently confident that the lack of affordable housing is a mainstream voter concern.

Shelter’s own fringe event asked panellists to consider what policies will help the Liberal Democrats capture voters. Most of the panel agreed that talking about home building could root the party in the concerns of ordinary families. This sentiment was consistently echoed by contributors from the floor: if new developments are attractive, genuinely affordable, appropriately sized, and rooted in local communities they can be a vote winner.

Both the Liberal Democrat leadership and membership want to find solutions to the housing shortage. These solutions could feasibly take centre stage in their 2015 manifesto.  Yet important questions remain. What will they look like? And will building them be one of the vaunted ‘red lines’ that the party will take into any future coalition negotiations?