Distinctive positions on housing

[Originally posted at Liberal Democrat Voice, 04/07/11]

There is no doubt some soul searching going on at the moment, in part as a consequence of the poor result at the Inverclyde by-election. I’m sure the leadership will seek to dismiss poor election results at this stage in the electoral cycle as to be expected when you’re “in government”. But that can hardly carry much weight, given the Tories aren’t doing anywhere near as badly. It seems to me that rather deeper reflection is needed. Is it clear any more what the Liberal Democrats stand for? Why would someone – beyond the most unwaveringly committed – vote for the Party?

Let’s pick one policy area – housing – to focus on. I choose it simply because it’s the one I’m most familiar with.

Plenty of media column inches have been generated by the evaporation of mortgage finance and the problems of accessibility and affordability facing “Generation Rent”. Almost everyone involved in the housing sector agrees that lack of supply is a problem that has bedevilled the British system for many years. Yet, there are significant concerns that Mr Pickles’ version of localism is a NIMBY charter. House building has collapsed to low levels not seen in generations.

There has been a heated debate about changes to social rented tenancies and rent levels and the reform of local housing allowances in the private rented sector. There are concerns about changes to the homelessness obligations of local authorities and major concerns about the quality of provision at the bottom end of the private rented market. The latter concerns will be stoked further by an imminent Dispatches programme (trailed by Jon Snow on his blog). There are concerns that taken together current policies signal increased poverty, more homelessness, deepening benefit and poverty traps, and increasing spatial segregation. These concerns exist even within the blue contingent of the Government.

Would the public know where the Liberal Democrats stand on these issues? Would Liberal Democrats know?

If we go back to the period before May 2010 the Conservatives were assuring us they wouldn’t tamper with social housing rights. That position was broadly in accord with the Liberal Democrat position. The Tories reneged on this commitment and proposed radical changes to the rights associated with a social tenancy. They said this would only affect new tenants. There was muted concern from Liberal Democrat quarters, but things move forward.

More recently Tories again apparently ignored their own earlier assurances that change would only affect new tenants by proposing that households living in social housing with total household income over a certain level could be evicted to make way for “more deserving” cases. As is this Government’s way, statistics were presented partially and simplistically in support of the case. Bob Crow and Frank Dobson have been constructed as folk devils.

In the private rented sector, the Housing Minister announced on arrival in office that there would be no new regulation, which represented a significant change from late period Labour policy. Last week at the Chartered Institute of Housing Conference he appeared to be changing his mind again. Regulation is to be extended, but details are yet to be forthcoming (as reported here).

There are, of course, some elements of policy that most people in the housing policy world have welcomed and see as long overdue, such as the modest initiatives to bring empty properties back into use.

Apart from the fact that policy development in this field can and should be thoroughly critiqued for being chaotic and incoherent, what do we think of the substance?

The most forceful Liberal Democrat views on these topics I’ve encountered recently – online in particular – would appear to have embraced the Tories’ position. Social housing should be residualised, social rents should rise, tenants should be stripped of rights, housing allowances should be restricted, enforced mobility is unproblematic, vulnerable and homeless households seeking assistance should expect less. The previous Government sought to revalorise social housing through broadening its social base. The current Government wants to ensure it is reserved for the poor. And that’s just fine.

The Government is changing the parameters of housing policy and housing policy debate in radical ways. And the changes are primarily directed at reducing the assistance the state is going to offer. An overriding narrative of austerity, short term “efficiency” in public spending, and “fairness” to the taxpayer justifies this.

So is the Party in accord with the Tories on this one? The answer is significant. The housing agenda currently being pursued is more market-focused – and shows less understanding of the challenges facing poor people in securing appropriate accommodation – than anything the Thatcher or Major governments attempted.

If the Party favours this approach then is this for distinctively liberal reasons, rather than simply aping the Tories’ entrenched dislike of non-market provision and regulatory intervention that stands in the way of making money? Do we feel that the route down which policy is careering strikes the right balance between liberty, equality and community?

And if the party isn’t in accord with the Tories on these issues then for what reasons? If we don’t like what’s happening then what does an alternative perspective look like? How is it rooted in a distinctively liberal philosophy?

And does anyone beyond the Party know about this thinking? Because if not then it’s hardly surprising if people aren’t sure what’s distinctive about its position.

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