Housing and 2015: the Liberal Democrats set out their stall

It’s been a busy couple of weeks, politically speaking.  The European elections delivered a shock to the established order as Eurosceptic parties of both the right and the left saw their vote share rocket.  A by-election in Newark came and went, though this time without the UKIP upset that some predicted.  And the Queen travelled down the Mall in her brand new carriage to deliver a speech which was either “busy and radical”, or offered “no change, no hope” – depending on your viewpoint.  A 12 year-old viscount even fainted with the excitement of it all.

Now that this flurry of activity is over, thoughts in Westminster are turning to the 7 May next year, and the next General Election.  The Labour party will be looking to strengthen a persistent but not wholly convincing poll lead over the months ahead.  The Conservatives will be hoping that their #longtermeconomicplan will start to stick in the minds of voters and convince them that the Tories are the safe pair of hands to trust the country with.  And the Liberal Democrats will want to show people the difference they have made as part of this coalition, and the value they could bring to any future one.

Interestingly for those of us who think about these things a little too much, all three parties seem to have chosen housing as the arena in which to start fighting this long, long election campaign.  Last week, Labour’s Lyons review into housing gave some encouraging early signs of its likely findings.  Tonight, it looks as if Chancellor George Osborne will make housing a central feature of his annual Mansion House speech.

And on Monday of this week, Nick Clegg chose housing as a key dividing line between the Liberal Democrats and their coalition partners, stating in a speech to Bloomberg that the Conservatives’ failure to invest in housing was “unfair and economically unsustainable”.

Throughout the Deputy Prime Minister’s speech, it was clear the extent to which he sees housing as an issue central to his party’s stated aim of delivering a stronger economy and a fairer society.  Failing to build enough homes, he said, “creates the seeds of the next crisis of financial volatility” (undermining a strong economy) and is “unfair to future generations” (failing to deliver a fairer society).  He went on to say that the Tories were ideologically opposed to getting the job done, and the Labour party didn’t have the credibility to achieve it; only his party could get the homes we need built.

And today, Nick Clegg’s warnings about the need to build more homes were echoed by his Cabinet colleague Vince Cable, who warned that action needed to be taken “to stop this boom getting out of control”.  As we build fewer and fewer homes, so the cost of those that we do build rockets out of reach of most young people.

This is encouraging stuff from the Liberal Democrats.  They have long had the most ambitious house building target of the three main parties, committed to delivering 300,000 home a year (compared to Labour, who promise 200,000 a year, and the Conservatives who have not committed to a number).  But this has not always translated into big set-piece speeches, until now.  It seems that the party, and Nick Clegg in particular, sees the political opportunity in housing – an issue on which one in three voters still say they don’t know which party to trust, or don’t trust any of them.

Equally encouraging was the sense in which Mr Clegg understands the kinds of solutions that are needed.  In his speech he acknowledged that it would not be possible to rely on private developers alone, or on tinkering with the planning system, to build new homes on the scale that would be needed.  He called instead for use of “the muscle of the state … and, if necessary, borrowing some public money” in order to get it done – which chimes with the solutions Shelter and KPMG have put forward in our joint report, ‘Building the homes we need’.

Mr Clegg’s speech was clearly intended to stake the Liberal Democrats’ claim as the party that can best allay voters’ concerns on housing.  With the Lyons announcement last week, and Osborne’s speech this evening, it’s clear he’s not alone in seeing the opportunity that lies in that route.  The parties are going to fight it out to be the authentic voice of the priced-out generation and their increasingly worried parents.  Whichever party is most successful over the coming months, it is not unreasonable to suggest, will have taken a step closer to that most important of political houses: 10 Downing Street.