Lib Dems – born again in Bournemouth?

By Alia Khan, Consultant

The Liberal Democrat Party Conference went all out to grab headlines this autumn in a sunny Bournemouth. With one MP defecting from the Conservative Party – joining others like Chuka Umunna and Luciana Berger who were originally Labour – to a bold new Brexit Policy, the party was certainly in buoyant mood. So much so that one of the party’s MEP dressed as a fish, for some reason.

Understandably, Brexit was at the top of their agenda this year. However, housing – building more and better homes – was also high on the agenda. The Liberal Democrats agreed policies to build 300,000 new homes every year from 2020, to improve rights for renters and increase funding for local authorities to tackle the issue of homelessness.

Furthermore, they confirmed plans to scrap exemptions on smaller housing development schemes from their obligation to provide affordable homes, and to “strengthen the hand of local government to prevent large developers reneging on their commitments”. Furthermore, they hope to enable local authorities to:

  • Enforce house-building on unwanted public sector land
  • Penalise excessive land-banking when builders with planning permission have failed to build after 3 years
  • Levy up to 200% Council Tax on second homes and ‘buy to leave empty’ investments from overseas
  • End the Right to Buy if councils choose.

Arguing that across the country house prices are at an all-time high and, where available, often unaffordable for first time buyers, they promised to introduce a new ‘Rent to Own’ model whereby rent payments give tenants an increasing stake in their property, able to own it outright after 30 years.

For renters, they passed a motion to abolish Section 21 of the Housing Act 1988, which gives landlords the ability to evict tenants without giving a reason, although critics of the idea believe the move will simply result in fewer landlords putting properties on the market, constricting the supply of homes in the private rented sector (PRS).

It’s fair to say though that Brexit dominated conference, and if there is one thing that remains direct and clear it is the Liberal Democrats stance on Brexit. They believe Britain is stronger in the European Union, and that they “are the biggest, strongest anti-Brexit party and have led the fight to stop Brexit for three years”. They voted to revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU.

Referring to the uncertain palaver that is Brexit, Jo Swinson used her maiden leader’s speech to criticise her opponents, saying “the tired old parties have failed. Looking inward at a time of national crisis. Our country needs us, at this precarious time”. She emphasised that the UK needed her party in this time of “national crisis”, adding optimistically, “let me be clear, there is no limit to my ambition for our party. And today I am standing here as your candidate for prime minister”.

Whether you agree with the Liberal Democrats or not, they appear set to win back some of their seats if an election is called soon. Compared to Labour, they offer a clear and coherent stance.

They staged possibly the weirdest photo op of conference season by appearing to walk into the sea (seriously though, there are easier ways to get to Europe), but whether they are on the march back into government it is much too soon to say.