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We must continue to fight hard for fairer housing

October 16, 2014 11:35 AM
By Tim Farron MP - President of the Liberal Democrats and MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale in Liberal Democrat Voice
Originally published by East Midlands Liberal Democrats

In case you weren't able to make it to Glasgow, here's some good news from Conference. The hard work that many people in the party have done on housing is being recognised. Jules Birch, housing blogger, sums up our party's policies on housing: 'As so often before the Lib Dems look like going into the next election with the best housing policies.'

This is not an easy feat. Housing is a complex issue which spreads its effects throughout society. It runs all the way from the individual tragedies of homelessness, to structure of our economy and the psychology of homeownership. To sort out housing you need action on at least four fronts: land, finance, the home building industry and political leadership. So bringing in my own motion on housing, it was a real privilege to build on the work that the party has already done to address the whole spectrum of issues affected by poor housing policy. I want to thank everybody who contributed to our policy development, spoke in the debate and voted for it.

We've now set the scene: our ambition is much bigger than meeting a target of housing starts. We are building a country, not just solving a crisis. My motion, summated by Vince, gave us crucial tools for the job and a framework: we need a plan for the next 10 years, owned by all of Government. We need a housing investment bank, new communities, a much more strategic approach to land, and we need to let the people who want to build, build.

But maybe the news is a bit more mixed. Here is Jules' criticism: "The Lib Dems are rightly more ambitious and their policies look good on paper but can they really deliver?"

Of course we have delivered some significant housing successes in Coalition, even with the Tories trying to hold us back - but it has been hard. We must not let the General Election eclipse the opportunities we still have in Government. We must continue to fight hard for fairer housing, as my ministerial colleagues have been doing from the start.

So I want to highlight one group whose time has particularly come. Housing associations. Their potential is largely untapped but is incredibly significant: who else wants to build homes, while offering everything from probation services to social events for older people? Several measures could help them build more to alleviate this crisis. We need to give them more control over their businesses on the condition that any surplus is ploughed straight back into securing more effective housing outcomes for their tenants, which in high need areas clearly includes building homes.

I've been calling for a fair valuation of all their stock. A quirk of policy history means that stock transferred in bulk from councils is valued at 30-45% of what the property is actually worth, rather than 60%. If we corrected this anomaly, which affects 1.3m properties, they would be able secure more private money to build homes at no cost to the public purse. Analysis of five housing associations illustrates that this could double their borrowing capacity.

This is something we could deliver, in Government, now, that would build good quality affordable homes at no public cost.

* Tim Farron is President of the Liberal Democrats.