Party Conferences: Taking the political temperature on housing

As the leaves of another party conference season are swept away, we take a look back at what it meant for housing.

First there was the Lib Dems in sunny Bournemouth. Housing featured as one of the three big themes of Tim Farron’s first conference speech as Lib Dem leader. Farron said it was watching the film ‘Cathy Come Home’ as a teenager that inspired him to get into politics. The film’s original screening in 1966 coincided with the launch of Shelter as a charity, helping us to become the strong voice on housing and homelessness we are today.

The Liberal Democrats made a series of policy (re)announcements aimed at tackling the housing crisis; building 300,000 homes per year, lifting the borrowing cap on local authorities, banning advertising British properties to overseas investors first, a state-backed housing investment bank, and 10 new garden cities across the UK. These are all welcome measures, although with the Lib Dems back on the opposition benches following the election, they are likely to remain on the shelf for the time being.

Next came Labour’s conference, with a sense of intrigue about the policy direction they would take under new leadership, in a positively tropical Brighton.

In his first conference speech as party leader, Jeremy Corbyn spoke of instability and poor conditions in the private rented sector, the need for more affordable homes to rent and buy. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell focused on changes to tax credits, controlling increasing rents and the plight of children living in temporary accommodation.

John Healey (Shadow Housing Minister) released a report with The Smith Institute on the Monday of conference that calls for the building of 100,000 new council and housing association homes per year by 2020. In his speech to conference he criticised the government’s record on affordable housing and opposed the extension of Right to Buy to housing associations. Shelter’s research shows the forced sale of council houses used to fund the extension of Right to Buy will mean 113,000 affordable homes could be lost where they are needed most.

A lot of heat was generated around a number of pressing issues resulting from the detrimental effects of Britain’s housing crisis, but Labour are not yet cutting through the humidity with a comprehensive set of housing policies needed to solve the crisis.

George Osborne gave the first major speech of the Conservative Party conference, making a number of economic policy announcements. For a speech that mentioned build, builders or building 27 times, there was little said about housing. There were previously announced policies on housing supply, planning rules for brownfield sites and the extension of Right to Buy to housing associations.

Greg Clark, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, focused on home ownership in his speech. Clark correctly identified a symptom of the housing crisis, saying “Now everyone has heard of the bank of mum and dad, but increasingly young people have to rely on the hotel of mum and dad too.” Yet the cure remains elusive: continuing the government’s narrative around the importance of homes to buy rather than homes to rent, the proposed Starter Homes were recast as affordable.

David Cameron’s leader’s speech included one unexpected announcement: the government are to change the legal definition of ‘affordable housing’ to include Starter Homes, and the planning rules will be altered to compel local authorities to accept these homes as part of section 106 agreements. What’s more, government investment in new homes will be re-orientated away from building affordable homes to rent to homes to buy. Helping people to buy a home is fine – but we’re very concerned that this will now happen at the expense of genuinely affordable homes: our research on Starter Homes has found that these will be unaffordable to most families on low to middle incomes. Much like the weather in Manchester, grey clouds are gathering over the future of low income home ownership.

Overall, housing remained high on the agenda for all the major political parties this conference season, which constitutes a welcome recognition of the scale of the housing crisis and the pressing need to take action. The turbulent political weather of this conference season has produced a few rays of sunshine, but we are still a long way from the spring of the comprehensive housing policy needed to put an end to the housing crisis.