Environmental Scan Addendum – October 2014 What the Party Conferences had to offer on housing

The 2014 Party Conferences were the last before the General Election and were expected to give an indication of what the parties would have on offer next May.  There were plenty of ideas and statements of intent but not the sort of comprehensive joined up strategy that NHF and others involved in the Homes for Britain campaign say is necessary to end the housing crisis in a generation.

Labour reasserted its pledge to increase new-build completions to 200,000 per annum by the end of the next Parliament.  The detail of how this is to be achieved was to be set out in the Lyons Review which was due to report in September but which has been delayed.  Ed Balls did make clear, however, that council borrowing limits will not be raised to help meet the target.  Councils will be able to transfer spare borrowing headroom to other local authorities.  Ed Miliband announced “new homes corporations” to work with housing associations and the private sector to deliver more homes locally, loan guarantees for small builders, a garden cities programme, and a new “right to grow” for local authorities expanding into neighbouring areas.  The party is also committed to putting more priority on brownfield development and said it would not force new development onto communities that did not want it.  Labour pledged to double the number of first-time buyers without saying how this will be done.  Other housing proposals include a national register for private landlords, scrapping the bedroom tax, tenancy reforms including three year terms, controls on rent increases in the private sector, a ban on letting agent charges to tenants, and an overhaul of home insulation programmes.  On the economic front, Ed Balls promised continued fiscal toughness with a cap on child benefit, a symbolic cut to Ministerial salaries, reintroduction of the 50% higher tax rate, and a mansion tax to help fund the NHS.

At the Conservative Party Conference Eric Pickles contrasted his party’s housing policies with Labour’s top-down approach, claiming a record of progress on affordable homes, Help to Buy, the reinvigorated Right to Buy, council house building and planning reform.  At the Conference a 20% discount scheme on 100,000 new homes for first-time buyers under 40 was announced.  These homes will be exempt from the zero-carbon homes standard and from S106 social housing requirements.  A £400M Rent-to-Buy fund was also announced with young people being able to rent at discount and have the first option on purchase.  Social landlords will build the new homes and let them at discounted rents for a minimum of seven years to allow the tenants to save for a deposit.  Continuing austerity measures also figured in announcements at the Conference including a freeze on working age benefits until 2017, reducing the benefit cap to £23,000, and scrapping housing benefit for 18-21 year olds without children.  Iain Duncan Smith also announced that claimants with “self-destructive tendencies” such as drug, alcohol and debt problems will receive benefits on pre-paid cards instead of cash.  At the General Election it is likely that the Conservatives will defend their record and boast the success of localism.  Detailed policy will also be influenced by the forthcoming “Review of local authorities’ role in housing supply” by Natalie Elphicke and Keith House.

The Liberal Democrats said they would build more social housing as part of their target to build 300,000 homes a year.  Vince Cable attacked Help to Buy for driving up the price of housing and making it less affordable.  The LibDems have already distanced themselves from the bedroom tax.  Danny Alexander suggested that central government should have the power to build new homes to solve the housing crisis, addressing both the cyclical nature of the market and structural under-supply, and that this role should apply to both social housing and the private market.  In Nick Clegg’s contribution he proposed the construction of five garden cities on a new railway between Oxford and Cambridge in an area where housing demand is particularly intense and where communities would be given incentives to accept development.  The LibDems also propose a housing investment bank to allocate public funds and draw in private finance.  Councils would be allowed to suspend the Right to Buy and there would be greater protection for private tenants.  The LibDems also promise social landlords more flexibility over rents, a lifting of restrictions on how they value their stock, and to allow them to take account of the whole cost of occupancy including heating costs in order to encourage action on fuel poverty.

The polls are showing significant support for UKIP and the Green Party so it is necessary to look at their positions on housing as they may influence the thinking of the mainstream parties or possibly become involved in some form of coalition:

The Green Party is generally to the Left of the three mainstream parties and, in addition to strong policies on environmental issues, favours radical wealth redistribution.  The Green Party wants to build more “really affordable” housing and stop demolition of existing homes.  The Conference debate on building in the Green Belt will feed into a review of housing and planning policy.

UKIP is well-known for its policies on immigration, tax cuts, dropping HS2, and leaving the EU.  It would also scrap the bedroom tax, allow payment of housing benefit to landlords, set longer tenancies in the private rented sector, aim to build more new homes (especially more affordable and social housing), prioritize brownfield development, and introduce local planning referenda.

For the record, a Sunday Times/YouGov poll published on 12 October reported the following voting intentions: Conservative 32%, Labour 34%, LibDem 9%, UKIP 16%, Green 5%, others 4%.  This was after the Party Conferences and after the Clacton and Middleton & Heywood by-elections.  It was also after two of the previous five YouGov polls had shown a small Conservative lead over Labour.  At this stage the result of the May 2015 General Election is far from certain, as is the composition of the subsequent Government.