Party Conferences: Half Way House

Amid the blur of fringe events, policy motions, twitter-tattle, and media sound bites, it was easy to get distracted during this year’s party conferences. Some key questions emerged: like, what pyjama patterns should we expect from our public figures? Can a speech have a deficit deficit? And is Lib Denim really a vote winner?

But let’s step back from the noise of conference season and look at what the myriad of announcements might tell us.

Labour’s conference did not see the expected publication of the Lyons Review, so we had to rely on some interesting teasers: the creation of “new homes corporations”; a commitment to double the number of first time buyers; reiteration of a ban on letting fees; and building 200,000 more homes a year by 2020.

All of this sounds positive – not least because many of their proposal are similar to those Shelter and KPMG proposed in our Building the homes we need report. The big gap was that, with Labour at pains to avoid being seen as big spenders, there was a noticeable lack of specific investment pledges; in fact, no new capital investment borrowing and no powers for Council’s to borrow more.

Labour also avoided tough questions on structural welfare reform. The focus on the gap between wages and the cost of living seems to be manifesting itself in solutions weighted heavily in favour of the former. But boosting wages isn’t a long term solution to rising house prices, and consequently not to the increasing number of in-work families claiming housing benefit.

Despite these draw backs, Ed Miliband did suggest housing would be the spending priority for a future Labour government, which is cryptic but encouraging. Labour are arguably giving themselves wiggle-room but sooner or later serious policies need serious money.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, remain firmly in the territory of aspiration. A new announcement on 100,000 discounted homes for first time buyers under 40s will have caught voters’ eyes, and could signal a positive willingness to intervene to get more homes built. As with Labour’s proposals, we’ll need to see the detail before passing judgement, but making these new homes cheaper by removing Section 106 affordable housing commitments is a bit like robbing Peter to pay Paul.

The Conservative’s Rent-to-Buy scheme, which we know polls well with consumers, is a bit more imaginative and of course completes the trio of Conservative rhyming housing offers, alongside Right-to-Buy and Help-to-Buy. They have earmarked £400 million in loans to get social landlords building – the only party to make a specific, and sizeable, spending pledge so far. However, while schemes like this could help some people to buy a home who might not otherwise be able to do so, without addressing supply, voters will be left wanting.

Where the Conservatives have also been keen to talk money has been in the form of benefits. With the housing benefit bill rising – driven partly by more working households needing help to pay the rent – the Conservatives have pledged to lower the total household benefits cap to £23,000, and to freeze benefits at current levels. Both blunt tools and likely to make life worse for families, particularly renters. With the economy recovering, wages stalling and more working households needing housing support, it’s unclear how these policies will play out at the election.

In addition, 18-21 year olds might be barred from claiming housing benefit altogether. Although this is less of a money saver if you exempt families, care leavers and disabled people, it clearly shows a willingness to cut welfare costs further – even if it proves controversial – to try and win a few more votes come May.

In essence, the Conservatives continue to grasp that voters are concerned about housing and that they need offers that play to those anxieties. But so far, this has meant treating symptoms not causes: it’s really the lack of genuinely affordable homes that is pushing up the housing benefit bill.

The Lib Dems, back in the labyrinthine SECC in Glasgow for the second year running, were characteristically doing their own thing, for better or worse.

Tessa Munt’s policy motion, which made ending retaliatory evictions party policy, echoed closely our own 9 Million Renters campaign. Rarely, there is an almost instant opportunity to achieve this; MPs will vote on banning the practice on November 28th. But if the Lib Dems don’t capitalise on this, it could raise doubts on how deliverable their other pledges really are.

Party President, Tim Farron, led the charge on affordable homes. It is now Lib Dem policy to create a Housing Investment Bank; improve tenure mix; give more powers to councils to acquire cheaper land; create new home zones; and put the housing minister in the Cabinet – not too bad at all, but lacking concrete funding commitments.

Worryingly, housing did not feature in their pre-manifesto document, and Nick Clegg failed to mention housing in his key note speech – something both Ed Miliband and David Cameron did. It is curious that, although housing is a consistent top-5 voter issue and Lib Dems are committed to building the most homes (300,000) of all major parties, they just aren’t selling it to the public. If they’re not careful, they could be left behind by other parties.

So where did conference season leave housing overall? The good news is that all of the major parties are grappling with the issue – each in their own way, but crucially ramping up the political focus. The challenge for all the parties now is to combine a decent policy, a costed plan and an attractive offer to voters. Housing is going to loom large in the General Election and, at this stage, the issue remains up for grabs.