Wednesday, December 09, 2009

John Healey: "Housing After the Crunch"

Earlier this evening I ventured into the belly of the ancestral enemies of radical liberals. I attended a lecture organised by the Fabian Society. It was given, under the title "Housing After the Crunch", by John Healey, the Minister for Housing and Planning.

I seemed to have been invited as a token blogger, but I was keen to attend because housing was my main interest in the far-off days when I was a local councillor.

Healey arrived late because he had to vote in a Commons division. When he did get there he was accompanied by a Malcolm and several Ollies.

Disappointingly, I found I agreed with much of what he had to say. It was a speech that would have been warmly applauded if it had been given by one of our MPs at a Liberal Democrat Conference, down to the frequent digs at the Tories. Personally, I found them rather cheap, but that won't stop me using them one day.

Healey made a good point in saying that housing should be a far more important issue in British politics than it is at present. It is becoming increasingly hard to get a foothold on the property ladder and most of those who manage to do so are helped by their parents. If nothing is done about this society will continue to grow more unequal.

The meat of Healey's speech was concerned with what the "new normal" of housing will look like.

He forecast that the public sector will have a greater role to play in future. The percentage of people owning their own homes had fallen from 71 to 68 over the past decade and was falling even before the credit crunch.

People will have a wider choice of tenure - owner, renting in the public sector, renting from a third sector provider - and they will enjoy flexibility of tenure over their lifetimes even in the same property.

There will be more working families and lower and middle earners in social housing, which will lose any stigma as a result.

Houses will be greener, warmer and have a smaller carbon footprint.

All this, Healey said, will require a stronger role for the state - an observation that was greeted with little noises of pleasure all around me. A smaller state would lead not to a greater society but a meaner society.

When it comes to housing, Healey is right. There is certainly a role for government in ensuring fair dealing between landlord and tenant and enforcing decent standards. And he was careful to say that state action need not mean national plans - local authorities have an important role to play.

He even said that recent changes to the law mean that councils will keep 100 per cent of the proceeds if any newly built houses are sold off under the right to buy. This was not the case back in the eighties when I was chaired Harborough Districts housing management committee. I also seem to recall that you had to get government permission to build new houses (which was not forthcoming) and pay off debt at the same time.

Perhaps housing still brings out my inner local councillor, but it was an appealing picture. What was less clear is how we get there from here, particularly when there is to be such a squeeze on public spending.

Can anyone recommend something good to read on Lib Dem housing policy? Something that goes beyond not allowing second homes in rural areas?

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