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Brexit Festival, dirty dancing and housing policies galore

By Michael Hardware, Director of Planning and Property

The dust has finally settled from another entertaining 2018 party political conference season, with plenty to mull over.

One unforgettable highlight this week saw an unconventional podium walk from the Prime Minister at the Conservative conference in Birmingham. Aside from that, the past three weeks has also seen Labour coming out strong in Liverpool and the Lib Dems reasserting themselves in Brighton.

There were no disasters, no mishaps, no significant rows, a potential bid to join the 2019 “Strictly” team, Diane Abbott beer mats, Vince Cable mugs and the occasional ‘exotic spresm’.

There was offence when the Home Secretary compared the EU to the Soviet Union, but that was from Donald Tusk, European Council president, so was very much welcomed by many Conservative members. Brexit was ever-present at all the conferences but not actually discussed in detail, apart from when Mrs May’s utterly bizarre plans for a Brexit Festival were being roundly ridiculed.

Conservative Leader in Wanting, Boris Johnson, made another populist speech, with much about housebuilding and planning. He rounded on the top eight housebuilders and the practice of land banking, perpetuating this idea, regardless of the fact his own government’s review into housebuilding found this was not an issue. More has to be done by the industry to address this as it is a perception that is widely held across councils, councillors and the media.

Conservatives and Labour agreed housing was the key issue after Brexit. It is a “housing crisis” and “the biggest domestic policy challenge of our generation”, according to Theresa May.

Labour introduced a swathe of policies sure to appease those unable to get their foot on the housing ladder, setting out plans to double council tax on holiday properties in England, introduce a commission to make citizens more involved in planning decisions, build more affordable homes and protect renters rights.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats turned up and were just excited to be there. Alright, that’s not exactly fair: they also proposed setting up a British Housing Company to acquire land for housebuilding through compulsory acquisition, and set out some genuinely interesting proposals on Rent-to-Buy.

Caps were removed, upward development approved, targets of 300,000 new homes confirmed and a new homes ombudsman announced, all polished off with the ‘Maybot’ and an increasingly copied Pinocchio dance sweeping the nation.

Read our more detailed summaries of what happened at the ConservativeLabour and Lib Dem conferences.

Lib Dem conference – roundup special

By Vivienne Shirley, Senior Consultant

The Lib Dem conference this autumn may have garnered more media attention for ‘exotic spresm’ than any policies, but this does it a disservice. While the party was still (a whopping eight years later) having to spend time defending tuition fees, there was a cautious optimism in the air – and a sense that, in the turmoil that UK politics has become, opportunities might loom for the centre ground.

There was also a confidence that, though embattled, they are once again on the right side of history – this time on Brexit. For unlike the confused division of the two main parties, this was a group almost unanimously united for Remain and doggedly pushing for a People’s Vote – if there was a lone Brexiteer amidst the gaggle of starred berets, they were certainly laying low. Often painted by the left wing as ‘enablers’ of the Tories, Nick Clegg drew loud applause when he called out Jeremy Corbyn’s disingenuous, limp-wristed approach to Brexit – who’s the enabler of the Tories now?  

But this was a conference also determined to show that the party is not a ‘one policy’ brigade, with no shortage of sensible policies on show. Regarding planning, the party reaffirmed its commitment to build 300,00 homes a year over the next decade and pledged it would create a British Housing Company – a dedicated, not-for-profit body that would acquire land for housebuilding through compulsory acquisition. Though the importance of green spaces was stressed, poor quality or disused green belt land would be considered fair game.

Social housing was also high on the agenda, with a promise that councils would have the power to decide on the availability of Right-to-Buy locally and Right-to-Buy receipts would be reinvested in social housing. The party further pledged the construction of 50,000 social homes for rent per year, rising to 100,000 a year as soon as feasible. The Housing Spokesperson Wera Hobhouse told conference: “If we are to truly tackle the housing crisis, we must embark on a large programme to rebuild our social housing stock.”

In addition, the Lib Dems would see a big expansion in ‘Rent to Own’, with Vince Cable noting: “We desperately need a programme of low cost homes for rent leading to purchase for first time buyers and key workers.” At the same time, the party would seek to deter investors who leave properties lying empty with a 500% increase in council tax. They also called for a stamp duty surcharge on overseas residents purchasing such properties, a policy shortly afterwards announced by Theresa May.   

However, the talk on most attendees’ lips in the bustling bars and hallways was Vince Cable’s radical proposals to turn the party into a ‘mass movement’ and open the leadership up to non-MPs. While most agreed that a lower-tier supporters’ network could be useful, many expressed alarm at the thought of non-members getting a vote on the leadership *cough* Corbyn *cough*. Meanwhile, Gina Miller firmly ruled herself out as a future leader in a polished speech to a packed hall. However, there was a sense that something radical might be worth a try if the Lib Dems are ever to emulate the success of Macron and Trudeau.

Vince Cable may need to hurry to get his reforms through and secure his legacy, as the topic of which MP would be the best next leader was a sure-fire conversation starter at every drinks event.  Though Liberals may look back wistfully on the days of Charles Kennedy, Paddy Ashdown or even Jeremy Thorpe (pre-canine murder), the options today are undeniably more limited for a party which needs charisma in a leader more than the two main ones do – as they are currently proving. Jo Swinson was widely viewed as the best bet and ambitious enough, though her speech on ‘owning the failures’ of coalition garnered a mixed response from other senior Lib Dems.   

In a world in which a traditionally sensible country cheerfully catapults itself economic turmoil and the most powerful man in the world spends his days tweeting gems such as ‘covfefe’, the party might just be getting starting for these centre-ground underdogs. The mood at conference was hopeful, though even the most optimistic conference-goer agreed they need a more inspiring leader to head the charge.

You can read our Tory conference special here and Labour analysis here.

Theresa Stumbles….But Will She Fall?

Against a backdrop of a downbeat party, an opposition riding high in the polls, Boris, and a nasty cough, this was never going to be an easy speech for Theresa May. And it wasn’t.

In the run up to the conference, when the Tories are traditionally rallying around demonstrating why people voted for them and poking fun at Labour factionalism, the Tories were facing their own bout of the Bojos and wondering who would be delivering the Leader’s speech next year.

Never one of politics natural orators Theresa May took to the stage looking fragile, and indeed, she delivered a stuttering speech through a spluttering cough. Depending on your position this is a laudable show of resolution and grit or an allegory of where the Tory party are right now. The cough was only part of the problem for Mrs May, as she was also treated to a comedian handing her a P45, while the stage literally fell apart around her.

But what of the content? We were told to expect some substantial promises on social housing and possibly a relaxation of salary caps. What we got was certainly different from the confident, pre-snap election May. This was a more humble, human, frail Theresa May who started her speech with an apology to the party for failing them during the election.  Perhaps for the first time she allowed us to see some of her personality and her (very) private beliefs. She spoke about her regret at not having children and some of the human tragedies she had witnessed over the years, as well as celebrating the success of the Tories in Government. She is not a rabble rouser like Jeremy Corbyn and she is not radical like John McDonnell. She is calm and unflappable. She showed resolve. She even managed to ad lib, prompting much laughter and applause from the audience, most likely in surprise that she managed it, as the P45 comedian was led from the room.

But the actual content of the speech was disappointing, and largely bereft of new ideas. She reiterated her commitment to one nation Toryism, first stated during her bid to become leader of the Conservatives, and outlined plans to move the party back to the centre. She committed to cap energy prices (an idea borrowed from Ed Miliband) which represents a significant departure from her determination to defend free markets. She talked about winning round young people who believe in consumer choice and helping them on the property ladder. But the silver vote that George Osborne so ardently chased, was barely mentioned – a failing she should have avoided after the snap election.

Her trailed “substantial” announcement on housing fell flat too. Although she said developers would be held to account and they would ‘fix the broken housing market’, there is still no timetable for the Housing White Paper and only an extra £2 billion for provision of new social housing. This was not what councils or the industry were hoping for. One London Labour council leader has already suggested she may have meant £200bn but coughed at the crucial moment, and the Lib Dems have calculated that the fund would deliver 15 homes a year in each authority in England.

She also avoided the contentious subjects of Brexit, pay for Government workers, and other topical issues. This freed up valuable time for a bit of Corbyn bashing which always goes down well with the party faithful.

The speech was well enough received in the hall and Boris has fallen back into line for now, so she may have given herself enough breathing space to get her to Christmas. It certainly wasn’t enough to stop the plotting and not enough to reach out to the voters the Tories appear to have lost to Labour. It looks like a bleak winter for Mrs May, or should that be, Winter is coming?